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Floridians hit hardest by pandemic work to get out the vote

Unions mobilize infrequent Florida voters
Labor unions try to mobilize infrequent Florida voters to cast their ballots for Joe Biden 02:45

Miami Gardens, Florida — Faberna Pierre, 30, a political canvasser and laid-off airport worker, knocked on her 3,000th door this week in this historically black neighborhood north of Miami.

She was greeted by an 80-year-old Haitian woman who cracked the door open just enough to hear what Pierre had to say. Pierre greeted the woman in creole, and asked if she'll be voting. She said she would.

"I'm going to mark this house down," Pierre told a fellow canvasser. "She'll need a ride on Election Day."

Pierre, who arrived in Miami Gardens by way of Haiti when she immigrated with her family when she was 15, was among those who were laid off when the coronavirus ripped through the heart of this working-class black community, located about 15 miles north of downtown Miami. Devastated by the seemingly never-ending pandemic, Pierre turned her struggle to motivation and hit the streets.

"My mother, she's calling her friends. If they need a ride, [she'll] let me know, I'll get someone to drive them," she told CBS News. "We're doing whatever's necessary to get people to vote, because our lives depend on it."

Faberna Pierre canvasses in Miami Gardens, Florida, ahead of Election Day. Alex Pena / CBS News

Democrats in Florida have faced criticism in the weeks leading up to November 3 for focusing on phone banking and not aggressively campaigning in person in this crucial battleground state, which President Trump won by 1.2 percentage points in 2016. Democrats have an edge among those who have voted by mail, according to data from the Florida Division of Elections, but Republicans in the state hold the lead among those who voted early in person. Early voting ends Sunday in the state.

The gap between Democratic and Republican get-out-the-vote efforts was one of the reasons Pierre and her union, UNITE HERE, threw their support behind Joe Biden, stepping in to help fill the void.

"Over the phone, they might hang up on you, they might curse you out. But by knocking on doors, you're seeing them face to face," said Pierre. "They're actually talking. I'm pushing my reason for fighting, my reason for voting." 

UNITE HERE is a national restaurant and hospitality union representing 300,000 workers across the country. Ninety-eight percent of UNITE's members were laid off at the height of the pandemic, according to the union. UNITE currently has 300 full-time canvassers working in Florida, and many more volunteers.

The union's members, predominantly women and minorities, were among those hardest hit by the pandemic in South Florida, where they formed the backbone of the state's nearly $100 billion tourism industry.  

Florida International University and the Greater Miami Convention Bureau estimate the tourism industry in Miami-Dade County alone took a $3.4 billion hit due to COVID-19. The unemployment rate in Florida, while not as high as the peak of 14% in the early months of the pandemic, stood at 7.9% in September.  

The repercussions have reverberated from throughout the industries' staff to reach business owners themselves. On Saturday, Adam Gersten waited outside his popular bar Gramps in the Wynwood neighborhood of Miami with a drink in hand, hoping to attract younger voters.

Gersten rented a school bus that sits parked out front of his bar, and vowed to transport anyone who wants to go vote.

"There's a drink and a slice of pizza, and a T-shirt we're giving away," said Gersten. "If you take the bus with us, go down to the early voting site close by, vote, turn around and come back, get some free stuff."

A bus rented by Adam Gersten to transport voters in Miami. Alex Pena / CBS News

Gersten hit a low point earlier this month when he faced the possibility that he wouldn't be able to keep the doors of his bar open.

"The credit cards were maxed out. There's still no second stimulus. The landlord was saying we kind of have to figure something out now," said Gersten. "There's no tourism. It's already a dark time, and that's when I was saying, 'I think this might be over.'" 

Gersten saw both the pandemic and politics playing a role in determining the fate of his business, which is why when he finally did reopen, he found himself motivated to engage politically, showing the presidential debate on the first day back. While Gersten supports Biden, he said his bus was available to anyone who wants to go and vote.  

"I feel everyone in our county that cares at all about the future of our country feels the weight of history, and voting, and the intersection of history and voting in our county," said Gersten.

Adam Gersten behind the bar at Gramps in Miami, Florida. Alex Pena / CBS News

The CBS News Battleground Tracker ranks Florida as a toss-up, with Biden slightly ahead. The state will be crucial to either candidate's prospects of capturing the White House.  

"We keep knocking on those doors. We count every day as it's the Election," said Pierre. "We want the most people to go out there, and make sure that their voice is heard. Because we are suffering here. We are struggling." 

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