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MIA's Forgotten Workers: Low Wages, Poor Treatment For Many At Miami International Airport

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Every year more than 45 million people pass through Miami International Airport.

No other entity in the State of Florida produces more revenue than MIA – not even Disney World can touch the $31 billion the airport generates a year.

But many airport workers do not share in that wealth. Just beyond those newly remodeled steel and glass terminals, thousands of workers toil in extreme conditions.

Many employees struggle to survive in low wage jobs.

"I have co-workers who are on public assistance," said James McKnight, who works for Envoy, a subsidiary of American Airlines. "Then the more I started talking to people sure enough I found out I do have co-workers who sleep in their cars in the employee parking lot and I'm like how is that possible."

With a starting pay of $9.48 an hour – and hours often limited to 30 or less per week – it is not unusual for Envoy employees to make as little as $15,000 to $18,000 a year.

After two decades with the company, McKnight earns $43,000 a year. He lives frugally. Takes public transportation. But he doesn't complain. He says he is better off than most.

"We do have an underground food pantry bank," he explained. "So, if somebody is short, somebody will bring canned goods in, I've brought canned goods in, I've brought spaghetti and stuff like that for co-workers myself."

In a written response, Envoy said it continues to try and negotiate a new contract with its workers:

"Envoy recognizes the hard work performed by its Customer Service Agents and has negotiated meaningful compensation, benefit and job security enhancements at the bargaining table with its Agents, and will continue to negotiate in good faith until a final agreement is reached."

The issues with Envoy are part of a larger problem in South Florida, where the economy is rooted in low-wage, service sector jobs.



A CBS Miami investigation turned up other issues at MIA involving one particular company that employs more than 2,000 workers at the airport. That company – Eulen America.

Interviewing current and former workers, as well as culling through court documents and labor department records, reveal disturbing allegations of mistreatment and intimidation along with what some workers claim is a climate of fear that prevents them from speaking out.

"People have a notion of the airport that it's the best, it's where they pay more," one Eulen worker told CBS Miami. "And in reality, it's a pure lie. Because they treat workers worse than – I don't even have words to say how they treat the workers. Horrible."

Many of the Eulen employees are recent immigrants who do not speak English.

"A lot of the people are new to this country and they don't know the laws or their rights, and then management takes advantage of that," the worker claimed.

Added a second employee: "Basically, we do the dirty jobs for the airlines because we don't have very high-level education."

They were reluctant to speak, saying they feared retribution or firing from the company.

"The reason why is because if they know who I am, it won't take even a week before they fire me from the airport," the worker explained. "And I need my job."

"Everybody is scared," a third worker explained.



Airlines contract with Eulen America to provide an array of services at airports up and down the East Coast including Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Washington DC and New York.

At MIA, American Airlines hires Eulen to clean the cabins between flights.

Delta uses Eulen employees for cabin cleaning as well as loading and unloading baggage.

Eulen also provides various airlines wheelchair attendants and customer service representatives.

Reached by phone at the company's headquarters in Miami, the CEO of Eulen America, Xavier Rabell, declined a request for an interview.

"I'm not the right person to discuss this with you," he said. "I'm the CEO of the company."

Asked about worker complaints, he said: "I believe it is false."

Esteban Barrios has worked for Eulen for several years. The 60-year-old Cuban immigrant unloads bags from the plane's belly.

He hauls as many as 300 bags a day – with each bag often weighing between 70 and 90 pounds.

Barrios shows me the schedule from the day before where he claimed to have worked from 1 pm to 6:30.

"When we finish one plane there is another waiting for us," Barrios said. "We don't even have time even to drink water."

He said he worked five and half hours without a break.

"Sometimes I feel that they think we are machines and not human," he said.

Barrios notes that he usually brings a bottle of water with him at the beginning of the day.

"But it's not enough," he said.

Temperatures on the tarmac can easily reach a hundred degrees, especially when combined with the heat of the engines.

"Very, very hot. Extremely hot," he said. "And not only outside, inside the plane is very, very hot."

Workers can become dizzy or lightheaded. Some have even fainted. Many of the Eulen employees CBS Miami interviewed complained they did not have easy or reliable access to water.

"I think that's not human," Barrios said.

In November 2018, Miami Dade Aviation Director Lester Sola received a letter from the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ, detailing allegations that Eulen workers were being mistreated.

In response, county officials asked Eulen to investigate itself in order to determine if the company did anything wrong.

On February 5, 2019, Eulen responded to Sola, saying that after conducting its own internal review it had concluded the most serious complaints by workers were not valid.

"Easy access to drinking water is a not [sic] concern to our employee group," a Eulen official wrote. "We have implemented a process consisting of a renovated golf cart with coolers (Water/Gatorade) to ensure ramp employees are hydrated at all times. Similarly, we can confirmed [sic] that employees working either on the ramp or cabin take their breaks on a daily basis."

Workers, however, stand by their claims saying they have never seen a Eulen water or Gatorade golf cart. And they maintain that often their only break is at the end of their shift – sometimes after working seven or eight hours straight.

As an airport contractor, Eulen is required to pay their workers between $14 and $16 an hour under the county's living wage ordinance.

And while the workers say that may seem like enough, they claim the company limits the numbers of hours they work to keep them from receiving benefits.

They say they are not provided sick days or vacation time.

Workers say they often have no choice but to come to work sick in order to pay their bills.

"If the people who are cleaning your plane are coughing and ill and they can't take a day off because they'll lose pay that is concerning," said Helene O'Brien, the Florida director of SEIU Local 32 B-J which is trying to organize the 2,000 Eulen workers at MIA.

A crew of four cabin cleaners can be given as little as ten minutes to clean a plane. They claim that is not enough time. Eulen disagrees, stating "…our workforce is sufficient to meet and face the demand."

One cabin cleaner described what they can face on a plane: "You can find blankets with blood, people puke in the blankets, you can find Pampers on the floor."

He said his supervisor has told him not to waste time cleaning too thoroughly. "Just make it look like it look nice and clean, just a rag and you are done."

The equipment is another frequent complaint. Workers provided pictures and videos showing what they say are the inside of Eulen's vans that carry the cabin cleaning crews to the planes.

Holes in the floor boards. A roof that pours down in the workers when it rains. A broken door that has to be tied shut with a seat belt.

"Other times we have to hold it with our own hands and keep it closed until we get to the plane," a cabin cleaner said. "Not only that, they're filled with cockroaches. That is where everything for the passengers is stored to prepare the flight, and all of that is practically infected because of the cockroaches. We can't bring with us food or purses, nothing."

In response to the Aviation Department's request for answers, Eulen acknowledged they did find signs of infestation and would increase fumigation efforts in their vehicles.

In one picture provided by the workers, a bench inside a van that the workers sit on as they are transported between planes, is tied down with only a blanket.

"It's not safe the way they are doing it," a worker said.

Esteban recalled how the brakes went out on one of the vehicles used to pull the carts filled with luggage. He said he lost control nearly running over someone on the tarmac.

Eulen denies their vehicles are unsafe. In its letter to aviation director Lester Sola, a Eulen executive claimed Eulen inspects each vehicle twice a day.

"Additionally, we have continuously passed the Annual Inspection by [Miami Dade Aviation Department] without any findings and we've been recognized in multiple occasions for keeping our GSE fleet in good operational condition."

Eulen noted they were refurbishing their vehicles and planned to replace others in the next year.

"Eulen employees are not exposed to dangerous situations" the official concluded.

Workers interviewed by CBS Miami said they were afraid to voice concerns because they believed they would lose hours or be fired.

"People don't protest because they are already scared that when they go against management, the next week your work schedule will be worse or you'll get less hours as punishment because you protested or said something that they didn't like," a worker explained.

Workers also say they have been threatened if they attempt to join the union.

There is evidence to support those concerns.

In 2018, a National Labor Relations Board judge concluded Eulen fired an employee at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood airport "because she engaged in union activity."

The judge ordered the woman be rehired and that Eulen to "Cease and desist from discharging, refusing to rehire, or otherwise discriminating against employees because they engage in activities on behalf of the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ or any other labor organization."

Eulen is appealing the decision.

"When the workers first started to get together and speak out about issues," O'Brien, the union leader said, "one worker went and actually talked to the media and he was fired by Eulen."



In 2015, the National Labor Relations Board filed a complaint against Eulen because of the employee who was fired. Without admitting it had done anything wrong, Eulen settled the case by paying the employee more than $20,000 in lost wages.

Still today, workers say they have been warned not to join the union.

"Primarily, they say that if we join the work union, then the union is going to show Eulen all that we have signed for the union and then we'd all be fired," a worker said. "They say they do have a way of knowing if we're part of the union."

"People come from countries where there is communism and oppression and they come here and work at this airport and what happens? They are as afraid here as they are in their home country," O'Brien said. "And that's a shame and we should be doing something about that."

County Commissioner Eileen Higgins said she tried to intercede with Eulen.

Last summer when she was running for county commission, Eileen Higgins, heard about the concerns being raised by Eulen employees and promised them if she won her race she would look into their complaints.

In December, she convinced a group of Eulen employees to take her on a tour of the airport so she could see for herself.

"It took a long time for me to even get them to let me visit the airport because they had said they were afraid for their jobs if they began to express their worries," she said. "It was daring on their part I felt to take me there."

Higgins had heard the stories about unsafe and broken-down vehicles.

"I did see some pretty ratty looking vehicles out there that they are loading and unloading supplies with," she said.

As the employees showed her around, she says she experienced for herself how a Eulen supervisor behaved.

"I went into one of the break rooms and one of the Eulen supervisors was there and it was clear, you could see him physically rise up, get up, march across the room and just sort of shouted out, `There's going to be trouble here,'" Higgins recalled. "I'm a county commissioner and it was intimidating."

Higgins hadn't just showed up at the airport. As a county commissioner she notified airport staff and was given an escort, so she was within her rights to be there. Eulen officials were never the less annoyed, according to Higgins.

"I did experience people really trying to push us out - `This is private property you're not supposed to be here,'" she said. "Well it's not private property. This airport belongs to the people of Miami Dade County.

As she continued her tour, she noticed she was now being followed.

"This gentleman, this supervisor, followed us around the airport keeping his eyes on wherever the workers went," she said.

After the tour she went back to her office and she wrote the CEO of Eulen America a letter.

"I was surprised that as a county commissioner I would witness and be subjected to intimidating behavior during an airport tour," Higgins wrote in her letter. "I can only imagine what these workers must feel as they go about their daily jobs."

The company never responded, she said.

"You know the last line is, `I look forward to hearing the results of these discussions.' But I've never heard a word back from the company of Eulen so it's not just my ideas, it's the workers ideas that are rejected. These are our neighbors. So, I never heard anything back.

"It's just shocking that they would mistreat a county commissioner – it's just ridiculous," she told CBS Miami. "That's no way to treat people. That's no way to run a business in my opinion. It's not right and it certainly doesn't seem to indicate a great level of morality."

Not only does the county need to get involved, but Higgins said the airlines, especially American and Delta need to step in since they have the contracts with Eulen.

"I personally think they should take a lot of responsibility," she said. "They hire them directly."

A spokeswoman for American Airlines declined to respond to the allegations made by Eulen employees.

Delta issued the following statement to CBS Miami: "We are following up directly with the vendor and take all accusations of this nature seriously. Delta works closely with our service providers to ensure they align with our core values of treating each other with dignity and respect."

In response to CBS Miami, the county's aviation department issued the following statement: "The Aviation Department has no jurisdiction or federally mandated authority over Eulen or any other permittee at MIA outside of the terms in their GASP agreement. Unless the complaints mentioned in the SEIU letter were witnessed and documented by an MDAD employee at the time of the incident, the complaints can only be addressed between the employees, the employer, and/or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)."

Higgins said every worker should be able to use equipment that was safe and working conditions that were reasonable.

"It didn't seem to me that they were asking for anything dramatic," she said. "They are asking for water. They are asking for a break room that doesn't have cockroaches in it."

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