Security officers allege discrimination at firm

Robyn Repya

Twelve black security officers working in Minneapolis public housing buildings – including some near the University’s West Bank – filed charges of discrimination, harassment and wrongful termination against their employers as recently as January.

All of the employees work for Burns International Security Systems, a company the city contracts with to provide security for public housing.

One former employee alleges his supervisor said, “The FBI called me and told me to kill all of the Muslims because of what they did to the World Trade Center.”

Another former security guard, Hassan Mahamad, said he was fired for not shaving his beard, despite its significance in the Islam religion. Mahamad said he was not allowed any breaks during his 12-hour shift, even to go to the restroom.

The charges against Burns are currently under investigation by the National Labor Relations Board, the Minnesota Human Rights Commission and the Equal Employment Opportunity Coalition.

Burns area Vice President Kip Sandoz denied the allegations and said Burns does not tolerate racism, sexism or ethnic persecution.

Sandoz said all the allegations by Burns employees are under investigation by the company, but he said none of them are merited.

He said the Service Employees International Union, which represents Burns employees, is using the charges as a recruitment tool.

“The recent allegations of a Burns employee are all union organizing tactics by the SEIU,” Sandoz said.

The SEIU has been actively supporting the workers’ claims. In January it helped organize a West Bank candlelight vigil, “Hate Has No Home Here.”

Sandoz said the claims of racism are ironic, given that 79 percent of Burns’ employees working in MPHA buildings are minorities.

But Burns employees tell a different story.

Said Ahmed, a 22-year-old Somali man and former Burns security officer, said he was harassed by his supervisors because of his race and union affiliation. Ahmed filed discrimination charges with the MHRC in December, a month before he was fired.

In a November 2001 statement, Ahmed alleged that one of his supervisors called him on the phone and said, “What are you wearing? Are you wearing any underwear? I know all Somalis come from junk, and a very nasty place.”

Ahmed said he was not paid for numerous days of work and was forced to work overtime when another employee didn’t show up for a shift.

Toward the end of his employment with Burns, Ahmed said, his supervisors were nitpicking things he would do – such as answer his cell phone or listen to the radio – even though other employees were allowed similar privileges.

“They were just looking for a reason to fire me,” Ahmed said.

He said he was even moved from his post at the Cedar-Riverside building to a north Minneapolis location, requiring additional transportation he did not have.

Ahmed said he went to the company’s human resources department when he began having difficulties at work, but nothing was done.

After being fired Jan. 11, Ahmed filed wrongful termination and harassment charges with the NLRB. The charges are still under investigation.

All 12 employees filing charges against Burns have either quit or been fired. But despite ongoing investigations, current Burns employees say they are still under pressure not to unionize and are victims of blatant racism.

“They give the white people the good morning shifts and the black people the night,” said Noel Stephenson, a Jamaican Burns employee. “You’ll never see a white person working on the weekend.”

Ron Sharp, regional NLRB director, said the investigation has been under way since December, but he said new charges are still being filed.

“We’ve had other charges filed with newer allegations,” he said. “We’re investigating it, but we haven’t made a decision yet.”

The Minneapolis Public Housing Authority still has a contract with Burns, said spokesman Bill Paterson.

“The majority of our residents and members of our agency have found Burns to be satisfactory,” he said.

Paterson said the MPHA has requested full disclosure of the investigations’ results, and he said its first obligation is to the residents.

“We have to have an adequate quality of service,” he said. “There has to be sensitivity to the diverse population they serve.”

In addition, he said, the MPHA has demanded Burns meet with members of the Somali community and submit fliers to MPHA residents to squelch any existing misinformation about its employee policies.

Paterson said Burns has been responsive to housing authority demands.

Abdirivak Bihi, the Cedar-Riverside Somali advocate, said many community members are concerned the allegations will not be taken seriously.

“Burns is very stubborn, thinking this immigrant community doesn’t know the system. We have no tolerance for hate,” he said.

Bihi said the Sept. 11 attacks have caused fear within the Somali community, making some reluctant to come forward.

“They’re afraid if they talk there might be repercussions,” he said.

Because the allegations have generated so much concern, Sandoz said Burns is working with the community to foster communication.

“We are setting up regular and constant dialogue with Somali community leaders,” he said.