Coachella Security Guards Allege Inhumane Treatment: ‘People Over Here Are Starving’
Security guards working the 2019 Coachella music festival open up to The Daily Beast about how they’ve slept in makeshift tents, received meager portions of food, and much more.
Every year, music lovers and miscellaneous basics flood Indio, California, for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. Coachella is known for its huge headlining artists and general aura of douchebaggery—the stereotypical festival-goer is a rich kid sporting a headdress and a fanny pack, scouring the desert for good times and even better Instagram opportunities.
Of course, these highly mocked caricatures only make up part of the story. The festival is also populated with an army of staffers who aren’t in Indio to party. This contingent includes security guards who work long days in high heat confiscating contraband, protecting talent, and generally attempting to ensure that everyone survives the weekend. It’s an important job, and an appealing one for fans and entertainment world-adjacent security professionals.
Antonio Cannady, a screenwriter based in Los Angeles, told The Daily Beast that he heard about a company based in Long Beach that was hiring security for Coachella. “So I went down there and applied and then we had this little quick orientation. It wasn’t much of an interview, it was like a cattle call, ‘cause we go inside this room and everybody’s standing up. It’s hot, we’re all sweating. But they talked it up like it’s Coachella, this big music festival. And they were like, yeah, it’s going to be like camping, so bring a tent and a sleeping bag or whatever.”
Cannady, who sent The Daily Beast a written account of his experience at Coachella, wrote, “Fast-forward a few weeks later and I’m at the BMW Nationwide Security loading into a bus with about thirty-five people, all people of color.” After a four-hour bus ride, his report continued, “We all unloaded with our luggage and checked in with reps for the Staff Pro, one of the main security companies contracted by Goldenvoice [a subsidiary of AEG]… who provided us with a one-page document; basically, giving us instructions on how not to die from heat stroke.”
The Daily Beast reviewed a photo of Cannady’s Coachella badge, which lists both Staff Pro and BMW. He told The Daily Beast that, “What Staff Pro has done is provided the grounds for their subcontracted companies. When we clock in, it’s all done through Staff Pro. We wear Staff Pro uniforms. We wear Staff Pro creds. They pay BMW and BMW pays us.”
When reached for comment Allied Universal, the parent company of Staff Pro, initially told The Daily Beast that Staff Pro does not subcontract out to private security companies for Coachella. However, they later reversed their position, writing in an email that, “All our Staff Pro/Allied Universal security professionals (including the security staff who are subcontracted) are offered the same resources.”
In a written statement, Allied Universal elaborated on these alleged resources, saying, “The Staff Pro security professionals hired for the Coachella event are offered the resources needed in order to make sure that we uphold the highest standards in working conditions for each and every employee. Located on a grassy field area at the event, we offer a camp ground that includes seating, picnic tables, charging stations as well as shower facilities. In addition, each security professional is provided pallets of water and catered food. For those security professionals who work the night shift, we offer a large air-conditioned tent that is blacked out from the sun so they can sleep during the day.”
While Cannady certainly wasn’t expecting luxurious accommodations, he was taken aback by the condition of the campground, writing, “We were all ushered into a large, smelly, humid tent floored in grass.” Although BMW Security had advised the security guards to bring a tent, air mattress, and a blanket with them, Cannady explained that, “This was easier said than done, with some security guards obviously stricken with poverty and arriving with pretty much nothing.”
Workers without their own tents slept in a large communal tent. Cannady’s account continued, “A lot of folks arrived destitute and had no choice but to sleep on a ground that felt like you were sleeping on a slab of concrete. I for one was one of those people that slept on the ground the first couple of nights. The next morning my body felt like I was a lineman for the New England Patriots. It ached just that bad. At night, the temperatures dropped into the low-60s, and the moisture moved in saturating the grass that was also your bed. So, those of us without an air mattress or a blanket were forced to use cardboard boxes and aluminum foil as a barrier between themselves and an insect-infested, cold, moist ground.”
He added, “This was a situation that if you could not afford to bring the needed supplies, then you were screwed and for the most part on your own.”
Speaking on the phone with The Daily Beast from Coachella, Cannady explained that, “People over here are starving, losing weight because we’re not being fed properly. It’s just a lot of messed up stuff that’s going on.”
A security guard with another company, who asked to be referred to by his nickname, Chowderr, confirmed in a conversation with The Daily Beast that it was not uncommon for workers to complain of being underfed and hungry: “If you’re not coming stockpiled and prepared, you’re going to be hurting for maybe a couple of days at a time.” The Daily Beast reviewed a photo of Chowderr’s 2019 Coachella security badge, which labels him as a Staff Pro employee, and also lists the smaller security company that hired him. The Daily Beast also reviewed an email to Chowderr from that company, Parker Security Services, confirming his employment with them.
Like Cannady, he was advised to bring a sleeping bag and a tent. “So we get here, we set up our tents and whatnot,” he recalled, “It’s about 80-degree weather, really hot. I think my biggest problem is they didn’t really let us know about the wind problems that they have here. When they did let us know, it was already like—people came back from work and their tents were destroyed. A lot of people didn’t know that wind does that to the tents out here. There was no warning, there was really no assistance.”
“They don’t supply you with anything—the most that they’ll supply you with is if they kick someone out, they’ll give you their tent. That’s literally it…Besides that, it’s a big lot of non-communication. It could be set up way better. We know that people who run this have the money. We’re not asking for five-star treatment or anything like that. It’s just a whole mess.”
Chowderr compared the food that is provided to security guards to “jail”—“That’s kind of what it’s like, not in the quality of how good it is, but in terms of you literally get one portion off of a 13-hour shift—like, what is this? What is this going to do?” In follow-up texts to The Daily Beast, he elaborated on that “portion,” saying that Staff Pro provides “a scoop or two of whatever it is they have.” Cannady observed that different companies appeared to provide different resources to their staffers. “We were told we would be fed but we were not told what minimum we would be. For example, the company I’m with provided a small bowl of pork and beans yesterday. That was it! So if you didn’t go to work or had your own food, then that’s all you ate.”
He continued: “Multiple meals were provided…sometimes. Hit-or-miss with these companies. Our company provides bag lunches but sometimes they only consist of a can of tuna and/or a single sandwich. Staff Pro is SO inconsistent. If they feed us, it’s a small single serving before we head into the field. This food is gone/burned off halfway through your shift and then you’re stuck.”
In his written account, Cannady emphasized that, “If it wasn’t for BMW providing meals until we got our first paycheck, which was two weeks later, then most of the crew would have been screwed. Sadly, other security guards with other companies were not as lucky.”
Cannady, in his written statement, called on Coachella to “allocate food budgets to properly feed guards for at least two weeks until they receive their first pay checks. Some people arrive destitute, proper meals are essential. This burden should not fall on small subcontracted security companies because all can’t afford to do it.” He told The Daily Beast that he would also urge them to provide aircraft hangars for lodging, complete with cots and blankets, because “no one should be sleeping on that horrid ground in that horrid tent or dealing with sand storms where your tent is blown away.”
Cannady has also alleged a racial divide with regard to working conditions for security personnel. “On my campground there are like three or four companies, all minority-owned by black folks,” he explained. “Now if you go across the field like I showed in the pictures, those are majority-white folks on different campgrounds.”
The photos show a row of buildings, which Cannady labels as “their lot,” juxtaposed with “our lot”: a smattering of tents.
Different security companies also pay different hourly wages, according to employees. Cannady, who was hired by BMW, wrote that, “Those bussed in to work Coachella for the entire month of April are only paid $12 dollars an hour and are required to work 12-16 shifts during the event.” Chowderr said that he is paid $14 an hour, but added, “I don’t understand how we don’t all get paid at least $15 minimum. Some of these posts…When I got here, they said you’re supposed to work thirteen hours, you’ll be in the sun, you cannot sit, you cannot move. And I’m like, well, how do you expect me to just stand here for thirteen hours straight in the sun and not have a chair for me?”
The owner of a private security company, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from Staff Pro, told The Daily Beast that his company was subcontracted by Staff Pro for Coachella for many years. He said that his company last worked with Staff Pro in 2017, and that “I wouldn’t want to do business with them again.” He recalled a hectic working environment at the festival and a logistical “nightmare,” explaining, “The thing was, sometimes you’d show up with 20, 25 people and they’d send away, you know, 10, 15 people because they’ve already met their numbers. So it’s not always, if you send 25, they’re going to clock in 25. And in my opinion, it’s always been a favoritism game too with [the various subcontracted security companies]…It becomes a vicious toxic environment and I don’t want to do it no more.”
“When it comes to food and water and things like that, they may provide that stuff, but it runs out pretty quickly,” he continued. “Or there may not be enough of it.”
Chowderr told The Daily Beast that he had had difficulty accessing food and other resources, mainly because “Walmart runs” were offered inconsistently. “Some days I didn’t eat. Like one day I did a 16 [hour shift], I did 10 a.m to 2:30 a.m., and then they’re like, okay, we’re going to do a Walmart run in the morning. How can I do Walmart runs in the morning if I’m at work for you guys? Then when I get off, they’re like, no more Walmart runs, but I need to go to Walmart to get supplies and food and something to eat! So that makes it hard.”
He added that Walmart runs appeared to be cancelled during “show days,” noting, “They don’t tell us this by the way, they are just cancelled until the following week, so if you don’t have a car or know anybody with one…Yesterday I walked about 4 miles to Walmart to pick up some things for show day.”
According to Chowderr, “show days” bring in an influx of even more security guards, further aggravating the perceived lack of organization, communication and resources. He specifically referenced the portable showers, saying that they hold five people at a time, while there are “over 300 guards on my lot.” He continued, “When the hot water is gone we have to wait until they refill it with hot water and we don’t even know when that will be. There are lines and sometimes people are late for work or didn’t make it because of the showers.”
“If you don’t respect your guards, and you don’t have these basic things, you’re not doing what you need to as a company to support a big event like this,” Chowderr warned.
When asked what happens when security guards complain, Chowderr claimed, “[They] try to shoo you away, say they’ll get back to you or that it is what it is.” Cannady told The Daily Beast that he has asked other guards why they don’t speak up, and been told that, “We don’t want to get in trouble. We don’t want to get fired.” He added that quitting in protest would present many of the bused-in guards with a new challenge—finding a way back to LA.