A dozen airport workers who spoke up about unsafe working conditions in a luggage-handling area of Miami International Airport known as “the tunnel” allege that doing so has cost them their jobs.
Some of those workers, as well as supporters and members of the local 32BJ Service Employees International Union, visited the Miami-Dade County Commission and mayor’s offices in downtown Miami on Thursday morning to raise awareness of the issue.
The workers allege that after speaking up about workplace issues in a dim, rumbling area of MIA’s Terminal D — known as “the tunnel” — they were not offered jobs when another contractor took over their positions in December. Their complaints included a lack of potable water, high carbon monoxide levels and no overtime pay.
The message these companies are sending is that the one who speaks up will get kicked out.
Carlos Garcia, former Ultra Aviation Services worker
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
The “tunnel” is a luggage loading area located below Concourse D, the international arrivals area, where workers bring in and sort baggage before sending it onto baggage carousels. That area of the county-run airport is serviced by several subcontractors, including Ultra Aviation Services, Eulen America and Triangle Services of Florida Inc. The subcontractors work under a General Aeronautical Service Permit that is granted by the county.
In June, some of the workers now without jobs took part in a meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission’s Trade and Tourism Committee. The meeting, held at the airport, was attended by more than two dozen employees of the three companies.
Following the meeting, several changes were made at the “tunnel,” including adding drinking water, fans to manage the heat, and an improvised breakroom area with a fridge, microwave and tables.
But on Dec. 9, Ultra informed its workers that the company had lost its contract to Eulen and that Ultra workers would be laid off. Customarily, many former workers are retained by the incoming company because it benefits the new employer to have workers who know the business and airport environment, said Greg Chin, a spokesman for MIA.
Of 100 Ultra workers, 80 were eligible for employment at Eulen. They were instructed to fill out simple applications requesting their name, contact information and position at Ultra. (The other 20 workers had contracts with airlines that could not be breached.)
About 20 eligible workers say they were not hired by Eulen despite sometimes long experience. All had spoken up about working conditions at the June meeting or had signed petitions related to the issue. Some other workers hired by Eulen for the jobs had no experience at the airport, according to Florida SEIU director Helene O’Brien.
62 Number of Ultra employees, out of 80 eligible, that have been hired by Eulen
Carlos Garcia, a nine-year employee of MIA and vocal opponent of “tunnel” conditions, was among those who was not offered employment by Eulen.
In June, Garcia, who works handling baggage in Terminal D, testified before the County Commission that Ultra intimidated workers to remain silent, failed to give workers overtime pay and offered no sick days, paid vacations or paid holidays. At the time, Nikole Augsten, director of human resources for Ultra, said that due to a policy change, part-time Ultra workers had become eligible for paid holidays as of June 1.
“The message these companies are sending is that the one who speaks up will get kicked out,” Garcia said outside the county offices Thursday. He led a group of affected workers and supporters with letters for the County Commission and mayor detailing their predicament.
So far, Eulen has hired 62 former Ultra employees.
Garcia’s last day of work was Dec. 31, when Ultra’s contract ended. Prior to working for Ultra, he worked in a similar capacity for Eulen for seven years. Airport contracts often shift between the companies.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan
On Thursday, prior to the workers’ visit to the County Commission offices, Eulen CEO Alejandro Fonseca had visited with Commissioner Xavier Suarez, according to Suarez. After meeting with Suarez, the workers were asked to leave by commission staff.
After Thursday’s visit, Commissioner Barbara Jordan sent a statement to union offices expressing support for the workers, saying that “workers who are brave enough to stand up against hazardous conditions on the job are exactly the kind of people we want at Miami International Airport. I stand with these workers and their quest to be reinstated.”
Eulen did not reply to more than a dozen calls asking for comment from the Miami Herald.
Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said Eulen and Ultra continue to meet the requirements of their permit agreements with Miami-Dade County, including those related to workplace safety.