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Workers at MIA claim a major contractor is stiffing them of their due wages

Airport workers protest against contractor for wage violations

Airport workers delivered living wage complaints to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department against Ultra Aviation for allegedly shorting workers pay for several years on April 12, 2017.
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Airport workers delivered living wage complaints to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department against Ultra Aviation for allegedly shorting workers pay for several years on April 12, 2017.

Miami International Airport worker Lisvan Lazaro Cruz’s health insurance covers so little, he had to go to Cuba to see a doctor, he said.

The part-time ramp worker for Ultra Aviation Services, a contractor at the airport, said the plan the company automatically enrolls its employees into covers a minimum portion of doctor visits and hospital stays. And because Ultra technically offers its employees health insurance, the company also pays workers a lower hourly rate.

“If [Ultra] is going to force us into an insurance, let it be coverage that meets the minimal requirements,” Cruz said.

On Wednesday, he was one of about a dozen workers who met with the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department’s Minority Affairs Division, which enforces the county’s Living Wage Ordinance, to request that Miami-Dade look into Ultra’s benefits plan.

If [Ultra] is going to force us into an insurance, let it be coverage that meets the minimal requirements.

Lisvan Lazaro Cruz, Ultra Aviation Services ramp worker

The workers, represented by Local 32BJ Service Employees International Union, presented nearly 70 complaints from current and former part-time Ultra employees claiming the contractor is skirting county law and paying workers too little.

According to the Miami-Dade Living Wage Ordinance, airport contractors can pay workers $12.63 an hour with a qualifying health benefit plan or $15.52 an hour without a health plan. But, MIA workers claim, Ultra’s plan through TransAmerica Life Insurance doesn’t meet the minimum requirements of a health plan.

For example, the policy offered to Ultra employees in 2015 covered $100 a day for hospital stays. That’s 5 percent of the cost of the average daily hospital stay in Florida, which was about $2,036 across for-profit, nonprofit and state/government hospitals that same year, according to Kaiser Health News.

That same 2015 TransAmerica policy, provided by an employee, includes a disclosure, which reads in part: “This certificate is not a major medical insurance and is not a substitute for major medical insurance. It does not qualify as minimum essential health coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.”

The policy doesn’t cite some of the 10 essential benefits a standard plan must include under the Affordable Care Act, such as mental health and substance abuse disorder services, rehabilitative and habilitative services and devices, and pediatric dental or vision services.

The policy offered to Ultra employees in 2015 covered $100 a day for hospital stays. That’s 5 percent of the cost of the average daily hospital stay in Florida, which was about $2,036 that year.

According to another policy from this year provided to the Miami Herald by a different Ultra employee, the benefits remain the same. The TransAmerica plan is what’s known as an “indemnity plan,” meaning it pays a fixed amount for services — $2,500 for a critical illness for instance, but only payable one time — rather than a percentage of the cost like typical health plans.

Nikole Augsten, director of human resources for Ultra, said the company provides all of its part-time employees with a minimum essential coverage plan that is both compliant with the Affordable Care Act and the county ordinance.

Augsten said the coverage reflects the hours they work, which in these workers’ case is less than 30 hours a week, but is still compliant with requirements.

“That is reviewed and audited and reported to the IRS,” she said, adding that she has been audited “a couple of times” by the county directly.

[Health care plans are] reviewed and audited and reported to the IRS.

Nikole Augsten, director of human resources for Ultra Aviation Services

MIA spokesman Greg Chin said the airport recently reviewed Ultra’s health insurance policy — and will do so again.

“As recently as November 2016, Ultra Aviation provided sufficient documentation to the Miami-Dade Aviation Department that demonstrated it was in compliance with Miami-Dade County's living wage ordinance,” Chin said in a statement. “In response to today’s complaint, MDAD will once again obtain and review Ultra Aviation's records to ensure they are meeting all living wage ordinance requirements.”

Florida SEIU director Helene O’Brien said the union estimates as many as 350 workers have been receiving the same Ultra insurance plan for the past two years. In a letter to the county, which runs the airport, the union is seeking wage restitution for the affected workers in the amount of the differential between the two wage rates for the period they had the insurance. It’s also seeking sanctions against Ultra at $500 per employee per week that Ultra was not in compliance with the ordinance and penalties of up to 60 percent the value of the underpayment.

In response to today’s complaint, [the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department] will once again obtain and review Ultra Aviation's records to ensure they are meeting all living wage ordinance requirements.

Greg Chin, MIA spokesman

Ultra has come under fire before for failing to offer its workers a safe workplace environment and other benefits, like paid holidays. Last summer, the company improved conditions in a baggage handling area of MIA known as the “tunnel” after workers complained and said part-time workers would begin to get paid holidays as of June 2016. Then in December, the company made headlines again for allegedly failing to rehire workers — a typical practice when the airport changes contractors — who had previously spoken up about workplace issues with Ultra.

Speaking up with the union and signing petitions led him to be interrogated by his manager six months ago, said Cruz. The incident raised his blood pressure and caused a capillary to burst in his left eye.

But Cruz said no doctor would take his insurance, and he eventually had the problem corrected in his native Cuba, where he studied to be a doctor before moving to Miami via Bolivia.

“[Ultra] gives me a company that doesn’t meet with law and on the other hand, it doesn’t give me what I’m supposed to earn,” Cruz said.

Chabeli Herrera: 305-376-3730, @ChabeliH

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