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Commissioner Eileen Higgins Discusses Harsh Working Conditions For Some Employees At MIA

Sam Turken
Congresswoman Donna Shalala (left), Representative Frederica Wilson (center) and Miami Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins (right) discussing conditions facing Eulen America Employees at Miami International Airport on Wednesday.

The last time you were at the airport or getting off a plane, did you notice the people cleaning your plane's seats? Have you wondered how your bags get from the plane to your carousel?
Employees with Eulen America are responsible for these jobs for several airlines at Miami and Ft. Lauderdale International. A new investigation from CBS 4 found contract workers with the company lacked adequate access to drinking water, had cockroaches and broken seatbelts in their vans and were often working five to six hours on the airport tarmac with no breaks.

Congresswoman Donna Shalala has demanded accountability for Eulen America employees and plans on speaking with board members of American Airlines and Delta, two of the airline companies that contract with Eulen at MIA. Eulen America has approximately 2,000 employees working at Miami International Airport. 

Eulen America provided a written statement, which you can read in full at the bottom of the article. CEO Xavier Rabbell said “As part of Spain’s Eulen Group, our dedication to safety and compliance is in our corporate DNA—globally as well as locally—and we take our full compliance with the Miami-Dade County Living Wage Ordinance and all other applicable regulations and laws very seriously,” stated Xavier Rabell, CEO, Eulen America. “All our aviation employees at MIA are paid at least $16.40 hourly without exception, in accordance with the Living Wage Ordinance." 

Miami-Dade Commissioner Eileen Higgins toured the airport with Eulen employees last year and saw some of their working conditions firsthand. She spoke with WLRN’s Luis Hernandez on Sundial about what she witnessed and what actions will be taken.

WLRN: How did you hear about the experiences of Eulen America employees in the first place?

Higgins: I met with quite a few of the workers (last year) and they began to tell me about their worries about working for Eulen in particular. We have many other employees at the airport. But there was something to this Eulen piece and I promised them if I got elected I would look into it and I would learn more about it. So early in December, we finally convinced enough workers to be brave enough to go on a tour and they were able to show me the difficulties. I was able to look at some of the vehicles. I'm no mechanic but they looked a little ratty to me. I certainly saw that some of them didn't have functioning seatbelts. And then we went into the break room, which was the only place where they can get any water to drink. They are not provided access to water when they're outside in the tarmac, it doesn't matter how many hours they're out there -- be it five or six at a time. There's no water on any of the vehicles, which seems silly to me. 

So we went into the break room and the Eulen supervisor there stood up and marched across the room to our group and said, "There is going to be some trouble here." I'm by the way a public official on an official airport visit. So I'm there with airport personnel and then another gentleman comes up and intimidates me and towers over me to try to get me to back out of the break room. And he says to me, "This is private property you cannot be here." Well it's not private property. The airport is our property, the people's property.

What came of your visit along with Congresswoman Shalala and Frederica Wilson?  Did you demand any public action?  

The two congresswomen asked for us to begin to look into whether we can improve our living wage, which will require me and several other commissioners to do some work to see if we can come up with the seven votes to enhance that on the commission. So if you care about that, call your commissioner. But the other piece, they really feel from the Congressional point of view, they need to begin speaking with board members of these big airlines to make sure that we express their deep displeasure with how this company is treating our residents. 

How much could you penalize the airlines that are contracting the company? 

I don't know the answer to that. I do know that we issue permits, so that a company like Eulen and others are able to provide these services to the airlines. I spoke with our airport director (Lestor Sola) who is as distressed as I am. He's been trying to contact Eulen to get things changed for some time and has reached out for a meeting with him with the CEO as well and still hasn't heard back. 

So part of it is on Eulen and we could strengthen our rules. But if there are real labor violations or OSHA violations, if there is an investigation in there, then the county will have more standing to do that. One thing that worries me is the split shifts. You show up and you work three flights but their next fleet isn't for another two or three hours. You don't get paid for those hours but you're at the airport until the next couple so you have split shifts and so you're working six hours but you're at the airport 10 hours. So how can that be that that's not paid? There are a lot of questions to be answered in my opinion. 

The full statement released by Eulen America about accusations of worker mistreatment.

Chris knew he wanted to work in public radio beginning in middle school, as WHYY played in his car rides to and from school in New Jersey. He’s freelanced for All Things Considered and was a desk associate for CBS Radio News in New York City. Most recently, he was producing for Capital Public Radio’s Insight booking guests, conducting research and leading special projects at Sacramento’s NPR affiliate.