Joseph Palma has a box filled with bread, crackers, juice, and oranges that’s supposed to last him at least another week before he can go grocery shopping again. He rations his meals so he has enough to eat every day and buys discounted meat that looks close to spoiling to save some money.
The 41-year-old former U.S. Customs and Border Protection customer service agent for Eulen America — a company that subcontracts employees to provide services for American Airlines, Delta, and other airlines at the Miami International Airport — moved back home with his mom, stepdad, and sister after losing his job in late March.
He holds on to what’s left of his $1,200 stimulus check and meager unemployment benefits until he can get a new job. Finding work in the middle of a pandemic is risky for Palma — he has heart problems and asthma and was hospitalized earlier this year with the flu. Balancing his financial security and his health can feel like an impossible choice.
“I know a lot of people are worse than me,” Palma says. “But I don’t wish this on anybody. I’d rather earn my money honorably and work hard than beg the state for money. It’s humiliating.”
Palma is one out of an untold number of struggling former Eulen employees who were laid off because of COVID-19, but he and others wonder if the company used the pandemic as a smokescreen to let go of some employees in retaliation for speaking out against poor working conditions and a lack of protective equipment and training to keep them safe against the virus.
Palma and scores of other Eulen workers at the Miami International Airport (MIA) have tried to organize with the Service Employees International Union, Local 32BJ, the union that represents Eulen workers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, but union leadership says Eulen has resisted their efforts.
“They’re inconvenient workers for Eulen because they’re speaking out and making them look bad, justifiably,” says Ana Tinsly, spokesperson for 32BJ SEIU. “You have to ask yourself, during this pandemic, is it a convenient situation that they’ve been laid off? “
Yesterday, Eulen workers drove through MIA, honking their horns and banging pots and pans to protest the layoffs. The workers and the union are calling on the airlines that contract with Eulen to hire another company and bring back the laid-off employees.
Reached by New Times, Eulen declined to comment on the accusations of retaliation.
Leila Benitez, a mother of four who was also let go from her Eulen job in March, says that while her husband is working, his hours have been cut, and their savings are dwindling with every grocery trip and bill that comes due.
“One job isn’t enough to pay for everything,” Benitez says. “I’ve suffered since losing my job. Now with COVID-19, it’s very difficult to find work.”
She talks to her kids, who range in age from 8 to 12, about the pandemic — how they can’t be out now, but that they should be able to soon; how they can’t spend their money unwisely now, but that things will be OK eventually.
For the past year, Benitez has been one of Eulen’s most outspoken critics. Tinsly says Benitez was largely responsible for bringing attention to hazardous worker safety violations that launched an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigation and fines against the company.
“My kids ask me why I don’t go to work anymore,” Benitez says. “I told them their mom was fighting against a lot of bad things happening at work, but we have to stay calm.”
Benitez is still involved in advocacy through the union. She’s made countless calls to members of Congress and other politicians to call for more protections for property service workers, like those who work for Eulen. Workers and the union are calling on Congress to include such workers in future federal aid packages.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act allocated $3 billion to cover the wages of contract airline workers. But because of delays in releasing the money, airline contract workers continue to be laid off en masse, Tinsly says.
Benitez and Palma say some of their laid-off colleagues worked for Eulen for more than a decade.
“They don’t value the job we do and the work we put in,” says Benitez, who herself worked for Eulen for almost eight years. “I think if you take care of your employees, everything will be fine. If you take care of me, I’ll give you 100 percent of myself.”
Both Benitez and Palma hope to get their jobs back soon.
“I love my position,” Palma says. “I don’t like the company, but what can you do? I want my job back. I want them to respect my seniority. I won’t stay here with my arms crossed.”