Airport workers who claim they lost their jobs for speaking up about unsafe conditions at Miami International Airport are pushing the Miami-Dade County Commission to pass an anti-retaliation policy that would protect future whistleblowers.
At a special citizens’ presentation at the commission meeting Wednesday morning, MIA workers who have not yet been re-hired by the airport also asked for a worker retention policy that would ensure their jobs wouldn’t be lost when the airport changes service contractors.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
Changing contractors is a common occurrence at the county-run airport, and the reason several workers’ jobs came under scrutiny late last year.
In December, workers in an area of MIA’s Terminal D — known as “the tunnel” — were not rehired when another contractor took over their positions. Typically, former workers are retained by the incoming company because it benefits the new employer to have workers who know the business and airport environment.
The 20 workers who were left out were part of a group that had spoken out in June at the Miami Dade County Trade and Tourism Commission meeting about the challenges of working in the “tunnel,” a luggage loading area located below Concourse D. Among the complaints were a lack of potable water, high carbon monoxide levels and no overtime pay.
The county needs to act now to make sure that workers are protected when they speak out about dangerous working conditions.
Carlos Garcia, former Ultra Aviation worker
Since then, conditions have improved in the tunnel. Then in early December, Ultra Aviation Services, one of several subcontractors that services the area, lost its contract to Eulen America and laid off workers. Nearly all, except for the vocal group of detractors, were hired back by Eulen.
In an effort to get their jobs back, the group of affected workers distributed letters to Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez and the County Commission in January. So far, about half have been re-hired.
In advocating for the 10 who have yet to regain their jobs, about a dozen members of the local 32BJ Service Employees International Union, as well as affected workers, asked the commission to introduce legislation with added protections for the workers and others who may speak up in the future.
The proposed worker retention policy is similar to one at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and other airports across the country, said Helene O’Brien, Florida director of SEIU, at the meeting.
When one contractor loses business to another contractor, the proposed law would ensure a continuation of employment for a period of time, between 45 and 90 days, that would be probationary, O’Brien said.
“There is no obligation to keep those people on, but they give them a chance,” she told commissioners.
We even talked about creating a worker bill of rights that I could bring before this commission because the conditions were so bad.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Barbara Jordan
The law would also include whistleblower protections for employees who speak up about problems at the airport, she said.
“The recent shooting at Fort Lauderdale and terrorist attack in Brussels underscores the importance of airport workers, who are often on the front lines of dangerous situations,” O’Brien said in a statement. “It is crucial that workers feel safe to speak out openly about any issues that may pose a threat to their or the passengers’ safety.”
Commissioners Barbara Jordan, Sally Heyman, Xavier Suarez, Joe Martinez, Jean Monestime and Dennis Moss spoke in support of further investigating the issue.
Jordan, who was a vocal supporter, said she has spoken to the union before about potential solutions.
“We even talked about creating a worker bill of rights that I could bring before this commission because the conditions were so bad,” Jordan said. “I would like to explore the possibility for the two recommendations that came forward.”
Commissioner Rebeca Sosa reiterated that the airport had not fired the workers for speaking up and that the commission, which grants the General Aeronautical Service Permit the subcontractors work under, had limited influence over a private company.
“At the end of the day we cannot control what a private company does with a contract,” Sosa said.
At the end of the day we cannot control what a private company does with a contract.
Miami-Dade County Commissioner Rebeca Sosa
But Monestime said the commission should work to encourage the airport and its contractors to be receptive to employee concerns and solve those issues quickly — before they have to come before the commission.
“These are 10 people and their families and their extended families and this is important for me,” he said.
Among the 10 still unemployed is Carlos Garcia, the most vocal leader of the group and a nine-year employee of MIA. He has not yet been re-hired by the airport and is living off unemployment benefits while he tries to regain his job, he said.
“We are just trying to make the airport a safer place to travel and work,” Garcia said in a statement. “The county needs to act now to make sure that workers are protected when they speak out about dangerous working conditions.”