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Unpaid guards latest problem for contractor

A Homeland Security contractor has a familiar problem as officers who guard buildings in the bay area ponder a strike.

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published July 1, 2006


TAMPA - The first sign of trouble came in April, when the paychecks were five days late.

Two weeks later, the next set of checks bounced.

After that, it was one problem after another for the more than 30 men and women who guard federal office buildings in the Tampa Bay area. Now, they say it has been more than a month since they've been paid, and they're considering a strike as early as next week.

"We're not asking for anything major," said Charles Mestas, 29, who guards the building at 501 E Polk St. in Tampa and earns $17.08 per hour. "We just want to be paid. It doesn't seem like too much to ask."

Mestas said the guards, who are members of United Government Security Officers of America Local 236, will meet Sunday to vote on whether to strike.

The officers are employed by Superior Protection Inc., a contractor for the Department of Homeland Security. A man who answered the phone at Superior Protection's Houston headquarters said no one from the company would comment Friday.

A spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security did not respond to a request for comment.

Mestas, who became a security officer after retiring from the U.S. Marine Corps three years ago, said he hopes there's a resolution soon. He has three young children at home, ages 10, 6 and 4, and he is the family's sole wage-earner. "My savings are exhausted," Mestas said. "My credit card is about to hit the limit. And now rent is due, the car payment is due. I don't know what I'm going to do."

The officers guard federal buildings throughout the Tampa Bay area, including the Social Security offices in Tampa, St. Petersburg, Bradenton and New Port Richey, Mestas said. They also guard the federal building in Lakeland, as well as FBI headquarters and the U.S. Attorney's Office in Tampa.

The officers watch over the federal courthouse in Tampa after 9 p.m. The U.S. Marshals Service provides security during the day.

The officers are armed and perform tasks ranging from screening to running X-ray machines to patrolling outside buildings.

James Carney, the union's international vice president, said he's proud of the officers for working without pay for the past month. But enough is enough, he said.

"It's outrageous," Carney said. "For a labor union, there's nothing more fundamental than being paid for hours worked."

This is not the first time Superior Protection has been accused of failing to pay its employees.

In 2003, the company was forced to pay $119,000 in back overtime wages after an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67 employees were underpaid.

The investigation showed the company failed to properly pay overtime to employees working on federal service contracts from March 6, 2001, to March 5, 2003.

Superior Protection lost another battle with the Department of Labor in 2004, when it was forced to pay $229,098 in back wages to 118 guards. In this case, the company failed to pay guards the minimum prevailing wage and health and welfare benefits, according to the Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division.

Superior Protection became embroiled in yet another scandal in 2004 after it hired an illegal immigrant to patrol the Houston immigration office as an armed guard even though he faced a deportation order.

Carney said Superior Protection has lost most of its federal contracts in the last few years. The Tampa Bay contract was one of the few it still maintained, he said.

Carney said he discussed the situation earlier in the week with an official from the Department of Homeland Security, who promised to cancel Superior Protection's contract. However, no action was taken, Carney said.

"The federal government knows how to get new contractors in short order," Carney said. "What they're doing is making these guys suffer."

Daniel Gallway, 51, a guard at 500 E Zack St. in Tampa, said he doesn't want to go on strike, but he doesn't have much choice.

His wife hurt her hand in an accident with a lawn mower last month, and the medical bills are starting to mount.

"We're not even getting gas money," Gallway said. "How are we supposed to get to work when we're not even being paid for gas?"

Times staff researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report. Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.

[Last modified July 2, 2006, 08:31:00]


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