Tourism & Cruises

Miami airport workers complain of unsafe working conditions

Below the baggage carousels at Miami International Airport is a rumbling, dim luggage area workers call the “tunnel,” where they claim labor violations abound, from high levels of carbon monoxide to a shortage of potable water.

The area is the baggage ramp chamber that is part of Terminal D and services international arrivals upstairs in Concourse D. Workers employed by two subcontractors who service this area, Ultra Aviation Services and Eulen America, allege the companies are not providing the necessary oversight needed to maintain fair working conditions.

Workers claim the baggage trucks — or “tugs” — that bring in the luggage break down constantly, have brakes that don’t work and headlights that don’t turn on.

“One tug, from the hood it was like smoking, it sounded like a teapot, like a high-pitched noise,” said Jasa Tanelus, a baggage handler with Ultra. “The hood is rumbling and shaking — I’m talking a big cloud of smoke. I’m out there and it’s shaking and people are looking at me like, ‘Why are you driving that?’ It burns your eyes.”

Workers for the two companies, as well as subcontractor Triangle Services of Florida, Inc., gathered at a special meeting of the Miami-Dade County Commission’s Trade and Tourism Committee Thursday, held three floors above Terminal D.

About 100 people attended, including about two dozen airport workers who together with the local 32BJ Service Employees International Union presented a survey of working conditions potentially faced by the more than 5,000 employees — most of them immigrants — of five subcontractors that are employed by the airlines for ground handling services.

“The truth is it’s a very competitive contracting system,” said Helene O’Brien, Florida director of the 32BJ SEIU. “It’s all about cost for the airlines, so they cut corners and often those are hurting our workers, some with their paychecks and some their health.”

Among the grievances:

▪ Lack of drinking water. Workers claim that in the past, water was collected in jugs from a pipe in a bathroom.

▪ Workers allege the “tunnel” has high levels of carbon monoxide from gas-powered tugs. Tests done by the workers found that the carbon monoxide level was 300 times the legal limit, however the tests were not scientific. Airport spokesman Greg Chin said the levels were tested last year and found to meet the guidelines set by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.

▪ Lack of protective gear, such as ear plugs and gloves. Ultra claims these were always available to workers.

▪ Lack of a break area.

▪ Very high temperatures and little ventilation.

Most of these issues, raised against Ultra, were addressed last month when a delegation of workers arrived at the company’s management office with a petition signed by nearly 100 employees demanding changes to the working conditions in the “tunnel.”

When a reporter visited the terminal this week, a break area was visible behind concrete barricades with three tables, a microwave and a fridge — with a large, red Ultra Aviation logo sticker on the door. A water cooler stood at the far right end of the terminal, flanked by 11 water jugs. A worker was rolling in an additional 13 jugs, and eight more stood by a column near the center of the room. Two vending machines, one for drinks and the other with snacks, had also been added to the area. Fans were running near each of the 10 columns.

Still, the heat was stifling, noticeable the moment one enters the elevator to go down to the ground-level chamber. Around noon Friday, the room only had a handful of workers during a down period with few flights, but employees had to be very close together to hear each other over the roar of the conveyor belt. Only one Ultra worker wore a dust mask. None wore ear plugs.

“I can add fans, I can add water, I’m happy to do that and we did,” said Nikole Augsten, director of human resources for Ultra. “But ultimately, I can’t move the location.”

Augsten said she was surprised by the amount of Ultra workers who complained at the public meeting because she has received few of those complaints at her office.

Part of that may be that many of the workers claim there is a culture of intimidation that discourages them from complaining.

Eber Gongora Rivero, a luggage truck driver for Ultra, said that on other occasions, employees have complained, and Ultra has responded by threatening to fire those who do so.

“There is no point in complaining to [Ultra] but I need [this job]. I have a lot of bills to pay, my wife is pregnant, I have three kids,” Gongora Rivero said. “I feel like I won’t be here to see the end of this because as soon as they call me from someplace else, I will leave. It is unbearable to work here.”

Workers cited issues with benefits, such as being unaware of their health insurer, no paid overtime and wage irregularity, where hours are shaved off. Employees for both companies also complained of no sick days, paid vacations or paid holidays.

Livan Acosta, chief operating officer of Eulen, denied the claims against the company saying Eulen pays overtime and offers paid holidays to both part-time and full-time workers. In June 2015, Eulen settled a collective action lawsuit filed by 13 employees in Miami-Dade claiming unpaid overtime.

“This is a very regulated industry and we have to provide all these items,” Acosta said. “You are always going to have a few employees that are not happy. But we can definitely look into that.”

Augsten said as of June 1, part-time Ultra workers will also get paid holidays, but workers won’t be notified until they get their paychecks next week.

The subcontractors work under a General Aeronautical Service Permit that is granted by the county, said O’Brien of SEIU. Commissioner Rebeca Sosa said there is little the commission can do to interfere with private businesses, even if they work in the airport. MIA said the permit holders have not violated their contract with the airport thus far.

Sosa and Commissioner Jose “Pepe” Diaz called for a report from the airport on anything that can be done by the commission in terms of safety hazards, particularly concerning the carbon monoxide levels in the baggage claim area of Terminal D.