32BJ Security Division Director Israel Melendez calls on the Acacia Network to provide improved protections to its security officers during a rally Monday at one of Acacia's offices.

Workers demand more protection from Bronx homeless shelter network

On the anniversary of the first confirmed Covid-19 case in New York, the 32BJ SEIU union and security officers for the Acacia Network rallied Monday outside one of the homeless provider’s offices in Longwood to demand better protections for frontline workers.

The union and non-union security officers are asking the Bronx-based nonprofit that operates homeless shelters to provide better protections, saying Acacia fails to meet the CDC standards and NYC rules on congregate housing.

“We need more protection, we need more training. That’s what I think they should be doing now,” said Terry Batson, a security officer at one of the facilities Acacia operates.  While more safety measures have been taken at her site at the Best Western by the JFK Airport, other facilities are still struggling, she said.

About 20 worker supporters, who stapled sheets that read 365 to their protective face masks, stood at the door of the Acacia office at 920 Prospect Ave. alternately chanting “365, fighting to stay alive,” “It’s been a year, still working in fear,” and “Communities are dying, Acacia ain’t trying.”

“We waited a full year for Acacia to take this pandemic seriously, and they haven’t,” 32BJ Security Division Director Israel Melendez said. “These workers are exposed. They’re here trying to fight for better conditions at work, fighting for PPE, fighting for respect at the work place, and just making sure that their employer takes this pandemic seriously.”

Four members of the group entered the Acacia office to hand a letter to the network’s CEO, Raul Russi. According to the letter, provided by 32BJ, a committee of people who work at 18 different Acacia-operated homeless shelters in the city expressed concerns about the lack of personal protective equipment provided to staff, and the absence of screenings for those entering the building.

“This blatant disregard for the health and safety guidelines set by city, state, and federal agencies results in illness, death, and added stress for our already demanding positions,” the letter reads. “We are putting our lives on the line to protect the most vulnerable among us, and we deserve better. We care about sheltering New York City’s homeless population and want to ensure that they are protected during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The Acacia Network has received over $1 billion in contracts from the city’s Department of Homeless Services. In 2019, the Wall Street Journal reported that the city was investigating Acacia for not disclosing its ties to a for-profit security firm, SERA Security Services LLC., which was founded by Russi.

The Acacia Network declined to comment on the worker complaints or the protest.

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