SAN JOSE: Eric Murphy generally makes about US$2,400 (RM9,611) per month after taxes as a security guard at Facebook, but his dream right now is not to buy a home or even rent out a one-bedroom apartment in San Jose, which averages about US$2,460 (RM9,851) monthly.
All he wants is to move out of his East San Jose garage-turned-bedroom, which he splits with a roommate for US$825 (RM3,303) a month, and into something more homelike.
Murphy was one of dozens of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) security officers who protested Friday outside Adobe headquarters in downtown San Jose. SEIU currently is negotiating a new contract with tech companies and contractors who assign security officers to the giant Silicon Valley campuses.
Murphy says he routinely takes overtime shifts and works up to 80 hours a week to make ends meet. The 27-year-old is contracted through Allied Universal, whose health care premium, he says, was too expensive to enrol in. Instead, he gets health care through a heavily subsidised Covered California programme.
Murphy demanded that Facebook, Adobe and other companies pay their service workers enough to be able to afford rent, health care and basic needs in the Bay Area, especially as security officers are possibly put into more precarious positions after the YouTube headquarters shooting in April.
Contracted security officers for Silicon Valley campuses make anywhere from US$15 (RM60) an hour – San Jose's minimum wage salary starting next year – to US$20 (RM80) an hour at the very highest, according to SEIU spokesman Stephen Boardman.
Facebook is not negotiating directly with SEIU. In a statement, a company spokesperson said, “we are committed to providing a safe, fair, work environment to everyone who helps Facebook bring the world closer together, including vendor employees and contingent workers”.
Adobe and Allied Universal did not respond to a request for comment.
“These are poverty-level jobs in Facebook,” Murphy said. “We don't want poverty jobs here. We need to make sure people understand tech companies here are bringing poverty to our community. At some point, when are we going to address that these companies are responsible for the inequality here?”
But Murphy could be counted as one of the lucky ones.
Elizabeth – a 58-year old security officer who grew up in Mountain View in the 1960s, whose father worked at Fairchild Semiconductor and attended San Jose State University – is homeless while working for a major technology company in downtown San Jose. She asked for her last name to be withheld in fear she would be fired by the company or her subcontractor.
Elizabeth says she sleeps three to four hours a day in her 1997 Mercury Tracer in industrial parks in Santa Clara and San Jose to avoid police who may impound her car or carjackers who may steal her car and the few remaining belongings she has. She chooses to be homeless, she says, so she can afford to take care of her older brother, who is severely autistic. She says she pays for his room and for caretakers while she is at work.
Because her brother is regularly evicted due to his erratic behaviour, Elizabeth says she loses the security deposit she puts down for him three or four times a year. She also says her brother cannot get full disability welfare because “he can wipe himself, he speaks two languages and has taken college classes before”.
“If I know how to swim, you should put that person in need in the lifeboat and you swim alongside it,” Elizabeth said about why she is homeless while her brother rents out a room in an apartment or a motel.
Elizabeth says she regularly works 16 hours a day every day, nearly half of which is as a security officer for the technology company.
Other security officers at the rally said 16-hour workdays were the norm for them to make ends meet.
“I try to get as many hours as I can, and I get pretty tired after 16-hour shifts,” Hector Ortega said. “We need the money.”
Ortega, a 46-year-old security officer and lifelong Bay Area native who works at PayPal through the subcontractor G4S, says he lives in Section 8 housing in East San Jose. “If I didn't have Section 8, I would be homeless, too,” he said.
PayPal, like Facebook, does not have a contract with SEIU but hires security officers through G4S. PayPal spokesperson Kim Eichorn told this news organisation in a statement that “we have a long history of working closely with reputable service providers, who employ a large portion of our security workforce, to ensure that our security officers receive competitive pay and benefits”.
G4S also offered a statement: “While we can't comment on any current state of negotiations, throughout the United States and across the globe, G4S respects the rights of its employees to choose whether or not to be represented by a union in accordance with applicable law. G4S has positive and constructive working relationships with the unions that represent its employees, including the Service Employees International Union in San Jose."
For the security officers in the protest, the stark inequality between themselves and the immense wealth the tech employees on campus have is not lost.
“I'm in a Free & For Sale Facebook page and I see (Facebook employees) posting up US$3mil (RM12mil) apartments there because they are moving abroad,” Murphy said. “Meanwhile, I just think to myself, 'I can barely get half a garage.'”
Elizabeth, the homeless security officer, says she reads inspirational stories from World War II survivors to keep her perspective in check.
“I've given up on wanting anything because it's too demoralising,” she said.
But one facet, while working as security officer in Silicon Valley, continues to strike Elizabeth as “utterly surreal”.
“We are told to clear out the homeless people out of the company premises, the lobbies, the restrooms,” she said. “But they don't know they have hundreds of homeless people on their properties every day and every night.” — The San Jose Mercury News/Tribune News Service