Tourism & Cruises

Ramp and cargo workers at Miami airport on strike to protest unsafe working conditions

Ramp and cargo workers at Miami International Airport who service Delta and American Airlines went on strike Thursday to urge their employer, Eulen America, to improve working conditions.

Workers for Eulen describe the current conditions as unbearable: break-less shifts on the overheated tarmac, broken equipment held together with makeshift ties, no paid vacation or sick days, and retaliation from management for speaking out. The striking workers are not unionized.

“Many of us came from difficult countries, we came in search of the American dream,” said Esteban Barrios, 61, who has serviced Delta Airlines as a Eulen employee for three years. “It’s turned into a nightmare.”

Protesters chant slogans during a demonstration at MIA. Ramp and cargo workers for Eulen America (contracted by Delta and American Airlines) at MIA are striking Thursday to protest working conditions. Jose A. Iglesias

Eulen has previously said the workers’ claims are false.

Delta Airlines contracts Eulen to provide ramp services; American contracts Eulen to provide cargo screening services. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is currently conducting an investigation of Eulen at MIA, an agency spokesperson confirmed Thursday. The property workers union 32BJ SEIU estimates that dozens of workers are participating in the strike at both MIA and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.

The director of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, Lester Sola, said in a statement that his department continues to monitor the situation to ensure workers have “proper equipment, facilities, and compensation opportunities.”

“We have met several times with Eulen and they have provided us documents and a plan of action that, if implemented, should address the concerns of the employees,” Sola said in the statement.

The county provided Eulen’s action plan — signed by CEO Xavier Rabell — to the Herald. The document says Eulen will buy new trucks by August 2019 and post bulletins about the grievance process in break rooms. The plan says that the existing equipment is “fully serviceable and safe to operate” and that the company has spent more than $200,000 on equipment like belt loaders and air conditioners in the last nine months. The plan does not address shift scheduling and paid time off.

In a statement to the Herald after this story was published, Rabell said, “We do not object at all if our employees wish to unionize. No one needs to mislead the public about our company in order to choose the right to collective bargaining. What we do object to is inaccurate and unfair characterizations about us and how we treat our team members. Eulen America wants to reiterate our full commitment to our business partners, our employees and our culture of safety and respect.”

A spokesman for Delta said the airline does not expect operations to be impacted. “Delta requires all vendors to maintain a proper working environment, ensuring they align with our core values of treating each other with dignity and respect. We continue working directly with Eulen leadership and take the concerns voiced by their employees very seriously,” the company said in a statement.

American issued this statement: “American does not expect any disruption to its service today. We have been in close contact with Eulen about its practices and are closely monitoring its response to concerns raised by its employees.”

At 7 a.m. outside Terminal H, Eulen workers raised and lowered “Eulen on Strike” signs as they walked in a circle chanting “Sí se puede.” (Yes, we can.)“ Around 7:15 a.m. Democratic presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Cory Booker joined them in the march.

“I’m here to give you support,” Booker said. “Your work is incredible. Your rights are important,” he added in Spanish.

Booker said he supports raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour. He blamed stagnant wages on a “massive decline in union organizing.”

“All you see being done to stop labor from organizing ... it’s correlated with a decline in benefits,” he said.

Democratic presidential candidate and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker joined striking workers at MIA Thursday morning to show his support for their cause. Jose A. Iglesias

Eulen is one of the few airport companies required to pay its employees at least $13.23 an hour with health insurance or $16.40 without, per the county’s living wage ordinance passed last July. Airlines and their subsidiaries are exempt from the ordinance along with all retail and restaurants with existing contracts. Eulen workers say that the living wage would likely be enough if they were able to work full time. Workers claim Eulen keeps them on part-time shifts with no fixed schedule, preventing them from securing a steady second job, and doesn’t provide paid sick leave and vacation time.

“They give you 20 hours and they move you like a chip in a board game,” said Joel Talavera, 52, who has worked at Eulen for three years. “They move people around on a whim.”

Fellow Democratic presidential candidates New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio and U.S. Representative Tim Ryan joined Eulen workers for an afternoon rally as did Florida state Sens. Annette Taddeo and Jose Javier Rodríguez.

As the crowd of around 100 chanted behind him holding “Eulen Strike” signs, Ryan said, “I’m one thousand percent with these workers.”

De Blasio urged the workers to unionize. “The eyes of the world are on this airport, the eyes of the world are on Miami-Dade,” he said.

Before giving up the mic to the next speaker, De Blasio blurted a quote from one of the most divisive historical figures in Miami, Che Guevara, the Cuban revolutionary.

“Hasta la victoria siempre!” he said.

The crowd cheered and didn’t seem fazed.

Miami Herald news partner CBS4 first reported the working conditions for Eulen workers in April. U.S. Reps. Donna Shalala and Frederica Wilson, who represent parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins, all Democrats, visited the MIA workers later that month to call attention to the conditions.

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Esteban Barrios, an airport ramp worker with Eulen America, speaks during a round table discussion on hazardous conditions at Miami International Airport, with Reps. Donna Shalala, and Frederica Wilson, D-Fla., Wednesday, April 24, 2019, in Miami. Workers spoke about inhumane, dangerous working conditions, broken-down airport vehicles and roach infestations they must work with. Wilfredo Lee AP

“I’m angry,” Shalala said after the visit in April. “They’re taking advantage of new immigrants. They should be ashamed.”

Workers interviewed by the Miami Herald this week said the company made small changes after the CBS4 investigation like cleaning out the cockroach-infested supply trucks and adding a truck with Gatorade on the tarmac, but they said bigger improvements are needed. Barrios said the ramp equipment is frequently missing or broken, and the workers injured.

“I couldn’t go to work on Monday, it’s the result of overworking day after day, there comes a point where you get injured,” Barrios said about a common back injury among workers. “We want sick days so that we don’t lose money when we are ill.”

Barrios said he had been taking an English class every Monday evening for a year until Eulen changed his schedule after he requested that the company provide him with its logs of complaints to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He also said the company lowered his salary from $17.40 an hour to $16.40 an hour after he made the request.

In a letter to the county’s Aviation Department, Eulen CEO Rabell said the company reduced Barrios’ pay four days before he requested the OSHA logs. The company said in its letter that it had overpaid Barrios for several months prior to the change in pay and that Barrios had requested a demotion.

Myrna Iglesias, a Eulen cargo worker who screens cargo for American, said Eulen requires a doctor’s note for missing work due to illness. She hopes the company will provide workers with paid sick days and more affordable insurance.

“I had to go to the emergency room to get a note and lost $800,” she said. “Something needs to change.”

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Taylor Dolven covers the tourism industry at the Miami Herald, where she aims to tell stories about the people who work in tourism and the people who enjoy it. Previously, she worked at Vice News in Brooklyn, NY, where she won a Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of NY for a national investigation of police shootings.