Just ahead of the busy Fourth of July weekend, nearly 100 baggage handlers, skycaps, ramp agents and other workers for Miami International Airport subcontractor Ultra Aviation went on a 24-hour strike beginning at noon Thursday.
The workers were joined by dozens of supporters gathered across the street from MIA’s Terminal E to protest what they claim is Ultra’s attempt at stiffing workers of their due wages by offering them an allegedly sub-par healthcare plan.
The battle between the workers and Ultra over its health plan dates back to April, when the workers presented nearly 70 complaints to the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department’s Minority Affairs Division, which enforces the county’s Living Wage Ordinance. According to the 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.
Ultra has asserted that it has been audited by both the IRS and the airport multiple times and has been found to offer a qualifying health plan.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to the Miami Herald
About 350 part-time workers employed by Ultra, a subcontractor for Avianca Airways, LATAM, Air France and other airlines, say the insurance they’re offered is not adequate, according to the Local 32BJ Service Employees International Union. The union is representing the workers at the county level.
Florida SEIU director Helene O’Brien said the union hopes the strike sends a message to the subcontractor.
“Ultra is going to learn a lot of things today. It’s going to learn that its employees are not afraid,” O’Brien said.
[Ultra’s healthcare plan] is not anywhere close to a plan. It’s not Obamacare; it’s not pre-Obamacare; it’s a joke.
Florida Senator Jose Javier Rodriguez
The total number of workers who participated in the strike will not be known until it ends at noon Friday, the union said. MIA spokesman Greg Chin said the airport is not expecting any disruptions to its operations as a result.
Attorney Miguel De Grandy, a partner at Holland & Knight, who is representing Ultra, said the subcontractor’s health plan is a “preventive health plan” that is in full compliance with the Affordable Care Act and the county ordinance.
County law does not define what makes a qualifying health plan, De Grandy said, instead pointing to a state statute that no longer exists.
“I can’t understand how anyone can say we are violating any law with regard to part-time healthcare when the ordinance has no standards as to what that health plan has to show,” he said.
I can’t understand how anyone can say we are violating any law with regard to part-time healthcare when the ordinance has no standards as to what that health plan has to show.
Attorney Miguel De Grandy, who is representing Ultra
He called the strike and the rally Thursday “very good theater.”
On Thursday afternoon, supporters turned out to speak on behalf of the Ultra workers, including leaders for unions representing airport concession workers, and Florida Rep. Daisy Baez and Florida Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez.
“The fact that the contractor is billing the county and paying the workers $3 less, as tax payers we deserve to have those $3 paid to the workers,” Rodriguez said. “[Ultra’s healthcare plan] is not anywhere close to a plan. It’s not Obamacare; it’s not pre-Obamacare; it’s a joke.”
Some workers didn’t strike out of fear that they’d lose their jobs, said Lorenzo Qualo, who does border and security work for Ultra at MIA. (De Grandy, Ultra’s lawyer, said the company knows which employees are on strike and is not planning on taking any action against them.)
Qualo said he’s tried to use Ultra’s plan to get medication to regulate his eye pressure, but when he went to the pharmacy, he was told his insurance didn’t cover the medication. It would be $97. When he told the pharmacist he couldn’t pay the amount, she was able to lower it to $50, he said, but not due to the insurance.
He hasn’t tried to use his health insurance since.
Ultra’s healthcare plan
Ultra’s TransAmerica Life Insurance plan is what is known as a “indemnity plan,” which pays a fixed amount for different procedures. For example, the policy offered to Ultra employees in 2015 covered $100 a day for hospital stays, according to a copy of the plan provided to the Miami Herald. 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.
Ultra’s health plan reads in part,” ...does not qualify as minimum essential health coverage under the federal Affordable Care Act.”
That same 2015 TransAmerica policy 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 benefits remain the same, according to another policy from this year provided to the Miami Herald.)
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 services and devices, and pediatric dental or vision services.
But De Grandy said that the 10 essential benefits under the ACA are only required for plans for full-time workers.
Ultra has until July 12 to provide documentation dating back to October 2015, including pay rolls, to the Miami-Dade County Aviation Department’s Minority Affairs Division so it can make a final determination as to whether the contractor is compliant.
De Grandy, Ulta’s lawyer, said that the 10 essential benefits under the ACA are only required for plans for full-time workers.
Last year, Ultra workers spoke up against the contractor for failing to provide its workers a safe workplace environment in a baggage handling area of MIA known as the “tunnel.” After workers complained, Ultra improved conditions and said part-time workers would also begin receiving other benefits such as 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.