CHRISTMAS is arriving about six weeks late for Temple University's security guards. But you won't hear them whining, considering the gift of human decency they're about to receive.
Starting Feb. 1, the men and women who secure the dorms, kiosks and other buildings on Temple's campuses will be entitled to up to three paid sick days per year - after years of having no paid sick time whatsoever.
This is huge for the guards, who are employed by King of Prussia-based AlliedBarton Security Services, the country's largest provider of private security personnel. Temple pays AlliedBarton about $6 million per year for 300 security guards.
Until now, that contract didn't include sick days. So guards either worked when they were ill or stayed home - and got docked a day's wages from their $9.15-per-hour paychecks.
It was just cruel.
In the last few years, though, many of the 16,000 security guards in Philly (most of them employees of AlliedBarton, which has a local monopoly on the private-security biz) have begun agitating for paid sick days.
Penn's AlliedBarton guards were recently granted up to three days per year, and Temple guards wanted the same. Their demands have been supported by Temple's Student Labor Action Program, Philadelphia Jobs With Justice and area ministers and community leaders.
Back in November, when I wrote about the guards' plight, Temple administrators told me that the issue was AlliedBarton's, not theirs.
"It is the university's policy to not intervene into the employer-employee relationship at companies that do business on our campuses," said a school spokesman.
Which is a crock. Temple, one of AlliedBarton's biggest Philly clients, has the power to alter the terms of its contract - including whether to specify sick days for the school's guards.
So what changed between then and now?
As Temple spokesman Mark Eyerly told me yesterday, "The students have made a highly impassioned and persuasive argument" for the guards' sick days.
Well, hats off to Temple leaders for finally paying attention. I hope the (albeit tardy) humanity of their decision leads the rest of us to adjust how we regard our low-wage workers.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
After my column ran, I was contacted by a human-resources executive who was peeved by its criticism. Many companies are backing away from offering sick days, she argued, so what was the big deal?
When I asked if she herself had paid sick days, she defensively admitted that she did. But it was clear she saw them as an entitlement for nicely paid professionals, not a given for low-paid workers.
Besides, she added, "every employee has the option of finding another employer with benefits that more aptly suit their needs."
What this woman didn't get, what those with no acquaintance with the working poor never get, is that low-wage workers have so few job options that they are loathe to leave the job they have.
So they do the jobs that those of us with options wouldn't choose to do ourselves - but that we all need someone to do.
Like man the security desk at the campus library. Flip the burgers we'll buy our kids. Clean the restroom toilets we'll sit on at the mall.
There is nothing wrong with these jobs. But we've so dishonored work - the tough, unglamorous kind - that we treat like schmucks those who do it.
"Only a schmuck would be stuck in a job like that" is the message we send with these jobs' low wages and nonexistent benefits. "If these schmucks had any sense, they'd move on already."
But many people can't. And to penalize them for it by not giving them a few lousy days off when they're too sick to make nice for us - well, it dehumanizes us all.
Today at 4 p.m., Philadelphia Jobs With Justice will hold a news conference on Temple's Liacouras Walk to announce the victory of AlliedBarton guards at Temple (and at Penn, where some guards have just gotten a hard-won salary increase).
If you're in the area, stop by and congratulate them. And if you see Temple prez Ann Weaver Hart, congratulate her, too.
For giving a Christmas gift worth more than whatever it cost. *
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