Long shifts outside without water breaks, broken and dangerous equipment, wage theft and an entrenched climate of fear. Contracted baggage haulers, airplane cleaners and other employees say working conditions at Miami International Airport are inhumane and abusive.
Past attempts to speak out or join a union have subjected workers to threats from supervisors. But, desperate for change, they're still moving forward with complaints.
They think “we are machines,” said Esteban Barrios, 60, who has been hauling luggage on and off planes for the past three years. "I got pain everywhere. On my back, my fingers, my shoulders...we have to keep fighting in order to improve our working conditions.”
Barrios joined other workers on Wednesday for a round table discussion with U.S. Reps. Frederica Wilson and Donna Shalala of South Florida and Miami-Dade County commissioner Eileen Higgins. Following an investigation by CBS Miami that first exposed the working conditions, employees at the meeting blamed their employer and airport contractor, Eulen America, for creating an unsafe environment for both themselves and passengers and failing to address their grievances.
Employees who clean airplane cabins said transport vehicles that carry cleaning supplies are infested with roaches. They are given nearly five minutes to clean domestic flights, and when they encounter vomit or blood on planes, supervisors tell them to use a rag to wipe it off, said Nadine Joachim, a cabin cleaner.
Workers who haul luggage also described a demanding work environment in which they spend hours outside on the airport tarmac and are denied water breaks. Their vehicles routinely malfunction, creating safety hazards as they transfer bags to and from planes.
“In 20 minutes, we have to do everything” with the luggage for each plane, Barrios said. As soon as he finishes the loading and unloading process with one flight, he must start it again on another.
Eulen has approximately 2,000 workers at Miami International Airport. The company, which is based in Miami, is required to pay workers between $14 and $16 per hour under Miami-Dade’s living wage ordinance.
But employees say Eulen limits their hours as a way of denying benefits like sick leave or vacation time. And they say supervisors threaten to fire them or dock their pay if they speak out against the conditions.
“I’m angry because what I heard was a company that doesn’t recognize people as human beings," Shalala said after the discussion. "The owners of Eulen ought to be ashamed when they hear these stories."
Eulen declined to comment for this story.
Shalala and Wilson called on the company and American Airlines, which contracts with Eulen, to immediately improve the working conditions. If both companies do not, Wilson—who chairs the Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions Subcommittee—threatened to call them before Congress.
In response to the complaints, American, which operates one of its hubs in Miami, said it “does not condone the behavior the Eulen employees are claiming.”
“We strive to work with business partners whose practices are aligned with our fundamental principles of human respect and care. If these accusations are proven to be factual, we will need to re-evaluate the work Eulen does for us,” a spokeswoman said.
Higgins said Miami-Dade, which oversees the airport, is also working to address the complaints. She said the Miami-Dade Aviation Department seeks to meet with Eulen CEO Xavier Rabell, though past attempts to do so have failed.
“A corporate culture is from the top down,” Higgins said. “We may have to change or write ordinances that force them to do it.”