Janeka Berry is used to controlling crowded lines at nightclubs in Toronto. But since the pandemic started, she’s been doing it in front of grocery stores.
Berry is the first person shoppers see. She’s in charge of making sure the store doesn’t hit its reduced capacity. That means lineups and a lot of miserable, impatient people over a 13- or 14-hour shift.
“There’s a lot of name calling,” she said. “Most of the days, I’m like ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself on the line to make sure that other people are safe just to be called the most horrible names in the book?'”
Security guards like Berry are now a common sight at places you would not have typically seen them before — grocery stores, banks, pharmacies, hospitals. They’re in charge of overseeing lines, screening for symptoms, and in some cases even taking temperatures.
It’s an adjustment many are still getting used to.
Pre-pandemic, it was Berry’s job to make sure people weren’t shoplifting. This is very different. She’s trying her best to stay positive, saying hello to every shopper and smiling, even though it’s hard to see it hidden behind her mask.
“If anyone is going to make their day a little easier, it has to be me, because I’m the one that’s letting them into the grocery store,” she said.
“Not everyone is grumpy.”
Lockdown saw hiring spree
Demand for security guards has spiked since Ontario started locking down back in mid-March.
Covell Phillips, a vice-president at Paragon Security in Toronto, anticipated demand would be high, but the actual numbers surprised him. His company has hired more than 500 guards around southern Ontario in the past 12 weeks.
“The numbers were increased based on a lot of the unknowns,” he said.
G4S Canada, also based in Toronto, has hired even more guards — about 1,500 provincially over the course of the pandemic. But that’s come with a challenge. Security guard testing, which is contracted out by Ontario, has been put on hold “until further notice” because of COVID-19, which means new recruits can’t get licensed.
“We have turned business away,” said Darren Pedersen, a senior vice-president with G4S Canada. “It started slow and then it went very crazy.”
Phillips is pivoting, looking to hire employees to do tasks where security licences aren’t needed, like making sure people are social distancing or telling them why they are waiting and how long it will take.
He thinks there will be a real demand for this role, as the province starts to open up even more.
“There’s an education that needs to be done there,” he said.
“You can’t be having an elevator packed with 15 people. Social distancing is going to have to apply. There’s going to have to be some screening to some degree that’s done.”
Listen: Security guards share stories from COVID-19 shifts
‘Not to take it personally’
James Renwick has already seen his role shift; he said it’s now much more customer service. He works as a security guard in a condo lobby in Etobicoke, Ont., where residents have been coming down just to talk to him about their lives and how they’ve been coping.
“People are definitely a little more on edge,” he said. “They’re a little more irritable. Even just having someone to talk to [and] work through their feelings during this can make a huge difference for them.”
His role has become sort of like in-condo therapist; many of the condo’s tenants are older and retired.
“I know everyone’s going through this in their own way, and to just kind of be someone they can talk to and to work it out, it kind of brings me a little peace.”
Renwick has young kids, so he does worry about getting sick. He’s dealing with a lot of people on a daily basis including delivery drivers, couriers and everyone who lives in the condo and their packages. He’s aware how quickly the virus could spread. His desk is now behind Plexiglas.
Paragon Security has had three of its guards get COVID-19, and all worked in residential buildings.
What security guards want you to know
- Be patient.
- Don’t get mad at workers.
- Give guards (and others) space.
Berry worries too, with all the people coming in and out of the grocery store. She’s been getting tested every few weeks, something she’s come to dread. But she does it so she can help people.
“You want to go in there every day and try to make someone feel better,” she said, hoping she can help shift people’s perceptions about security guards.
It’s been draining, but she’s been encouraged by those who say hello back or give her a smile. She’s hoping people can have a little more patience with frontline workers like herself.
“I just have to remember that everyone’s going through something different,” she said. “I have to remember not to take it personally.”
This is part of a series looking into the unexpected front-line workers of COVID-19, people in jobs keeping things running like grocery store employees, couriers, workers making house repair calls and cleaners and garbage collectors while many stay home. If you have a job idea, email firstname.lastname@example.org.