Michael T. Regan
(CLICK IMAGE FOR LARGER VERSION)
Being a security guard in the Philadelphia Housing Authority's Westpark Towers is not a good job. You sit all day in a tiny booth, in the lobby of a West Philly high rise, and flip a switch to grant entry to project residents. You're given minimal training, no gun and there's no bulletproof glass to protect you. If you witness a crime, you're expected to notify PHA police, then sit and wait. And your pay rate is paltry — just above $7 an hour, with no benefits.You'd expect, at least, to actually get paid.
But for guards employed by one PHA subcontractor, collecting remuneration has become a challenge lately. The Bethlehem-based Oakley Services Inc. holds the security contract for 11 Philadelphia public housing sites; PHA pays Oakley to provide security, and Oakley hires and pays guards. In recent months, however, Oakley has struggled to keep its end of the bargain: It's been habitually late in delivering its employees' compensation; has failed to provide payment in full; has written checks that bounced; and has even, on two occasions, paid its guards in cash.
The trouble began on Friday, Aug. 24. It was supposed to be a payday, but that afternoon, instead of delivering checks, an Oakley supervisor came to Westpark and said the guards would have to wait until Tuesday for their compensation.
"No reason, no explanation," says a guard who, like several others, asked that her name not be used for fear of retribution.
Tuesday came and went without pay. A few days later, Oakley guards from numerous sites were summoned to the community center at the Westpark development (near 46th and Market, it includes three high-rise towers). There, they saw PHA police standing over a table covered with piles of cash. The guards were handed their checks, told that, for logistical reasons, they would have to sign them back over, and then given their pay (rounded to the nearest dollar) in cash.
The following Friday, Sept. 7, the guards were due to be paid again. This time they were given envelopes containing cash equal to about half of what they'd earned. One guard's envelope was labeled: "NET 457.60. Received $250.00."
"They still owe us from that half," says a guard.
Oakley attempted to prove to its guards that it was trying to pay them. It passed out a memo, dated Aug. 31 on Oakley letterhead, stating, "Due to financial miscommunication with our contractor Philadelphia Housing Authority our employees at Oakley security has [sic] not been paid since 8/8/07 ... we are trying to expedite this matter as quickly as possible." It also supplied a copy of an e-mail, sent Aug. 23 from Oakley's Jennifer Cunningham to PHA's Alicia Wilson, asking PHA to wire $45,000 into Oakley's account so the company could make payroll. Cunningham makes reference to "outstanding invoices" and writes, "We are really in a tough spot right now and need some assistance."
Still, the problems persisted. Though Oakley resumed paying guards with checks, payment was rarely punctual. Payday was moved to Wednesday, but the guards waited until Thursday, Friday and the next week for their compensation. When the guards received their checks, another problem arose: Some were no good.
"A couple of times they sent me to the bank and my paycheck bounced," says former Oakley guard Artellia Fisher. Another guard cashed her check at Terminal Check Service Inc. at Broad and Olney, and was later informed that the check had been rejected.
"The bank said there was no money in the account," says Marvin Sabulsky, proprietor of Terminal Check Cashing. Sabulsky says he faxed proof of the problem to Oakley and when he didn't hear back, filed a claim against them for $498.29. He won't accept checks from the company anymore.
Fisher says the problems got so bad that guards "had to [cash their checks] that very day, because if you go tomorrow, there might not be any money left.
"This," she says, "is ridiculous."
Oakley Services Inc. was founded in 1992 by Robert Oakley Jr. In addition to security, the certified minority-owned business performs private investigations, forensics and construction management. It received its contract with PHA through an open-bid process, according to PHA spokesman Kirk Dorn. The agreement, which began in April 2005 and expires in April 2010, calls for Oakley to provide security at 11 sites for 700 hours a week. Oakley is paid $14.42 per position, per hour (this rate covers the guards, administrative costs and profits). It employs about 65 guards. Asked about Oakley's struggles to make payroll, Dorn says, "Oakley is very good at providing security. Unfortunately, they haven't been so good about providing paperwork."PHA requires Oakley to submit invoices, Dorn explains, which Oakley has frequently failed to do. As a result, PHA hasn't paid them on time, and Oakley hasn't had money to pay guards.
PHA and Oakley have met to discuss this problem, and Oakley has committed to meet deadlines, Dorn says — though guards say their pay continues to arrive late. Should the problem persist, of course, the quality of Oakley's service could be compromised, because guards could quit or take the job less seriously.
"If they continue [to miss deadlines], we would have to take action at some point," Dorn says.
Oakley headquarters did not return repeated calls for comment on its paperwork problems, cash payments, and whether it intends to reimburse Terminal Check Cashing or provide guards with the remaining half of a check they say they are owed. While Oakley's problems may stem from minor logistical errors, their effects have been anything but small to those who've borne the brunt of the mistakes. Many Oakley guards live paycheck to paycheck, and have struggled to pay bills.
"We can't keep telling the landlord we didn't get paid this week," says one. Indeed, guards have received eviction and shut-off notices; one suffered the indignity, more appropriate for a child out sick from school, of having an Oakley supervisor write a letter to PGW confirming that she hadn't received her pay.
A few weeks ago, Oakley employees contacted the local Jobs with Justice chapter, which they knew was working to provide representation to security guards at Penn and Temple in the absence of a union [News, "Allied Affront," Aug. 28, 2007]. JWJ put the guards in touch with a lawyer, who may represent them in a class-action lawsuit, and is investigating whether Oakley is in violation of wage laws for government-funded jobs (PHA receives city and federal funding, and it's possible they could be required to give the guards a raise).
In the meantime, numerous working Philadelphians who were barely scraping by to begin with are having an even harder time of it. One Oakley guard who spent more than half his life incarcerated for robbery, drug and parole-violation charges, says his security job is the cornerstone of his effort to get on the straight and narrow. He doesn't think his family will allow him to fall back into a life of crime. But not getting paid for his honest work has made the straight path that much harder to follow.
"If I can't rely on a job ... " he says, trailing off.