As airline travel picks up this holiday season after a pandemic-induced lull, subcontracted workers at Miami International Airport (MIA) say their employer’s lack of health precautions could cause passengers to become sick amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Employees of Eulen America, a contractor that provides security and cabin-cleaning services for airlines like American Airlines and Delta, say that owing to mass layoffs this summer, they’ve been forced to come into work sick. They also say they haven’t been notified when their coworkers have tested positive for COVID-19 and that they’ve had to buy their own facemasks and gloves for protection.
Hugo Dongo says he worked as a security guard for Eulen at MIA for nearly ten years until he was fired last week for complaining about unsafe conditions and trying to unionize his coworkers. Dongo tells New Times in Spanish that several of his coworkers came in to work with potential symptoms of COVID-19, including fevers and body aches, because there aren’t always enough employees to cover shifts.
“If we had symptoms, the company told us we had to find a replacement or else we had to come in. If we didn’t find a replacement and didn’t come in, they told us we’d face consequences,” Dongo says.
In an emailed statement, a spokesperson for Eulen told New Times the company encourages employees to stay home if they’re feeling ill and only asks that sick employees notify their managers as soon as possible so the company can make arrangements.
But Dongo says employees often feel pressured by their managers to find someone to cover for them, and some end up reporting to work if they can’t find a substitute. One of Dongo’s coworkers, Reinaldo Gutierrez Carnet, tells New Times in Spanish that he had to argue with management one day when he was extremely ill just to persuade them to give him a single day off.
Gutierrez Carnet was also fired last week. Although Eulen has not given him an official explanation for his termination after 18 years of service, a supervisor told him it was because he was complaining about Eulen’s problems to a former coworker who was recently fired.
Dongo says he knew several coworkers who tested positive for COVID-19, but the company didn’t alert the staff to the documented illnesses. Employees had to find out through the grapevine who was sick and who wasn’t, leaving many fearful for their health, Dongo says.
“People were getting sick, and we would only hear it from each other. We had to figure out for ourselves who they had contact with, because they got COVID-19 and we weren’t told,” he says.
Dongo, who lives with his 93-year-old mother, says he went through an extensive disinfection protocol when he got home from work each day in order to keep his mother safe. With the high risk of contracting COVID-19 while working at MIA, Dongo felt endangered and worried for the elderly woman’s health.
Dongo and Gutierrez Carnet believe Eulen’s lack of precautions for its workers puts airline passengers at risk because security guards are often the first people travelers encounter when they land.
“When a plane comes in, we have to be there at the door. We get the first whiff of air that comes out, and all those people that come through the airplane — we are right there in front of them,” says Gutierrez Carnet. “Some people get close to us and ask us questions, so we’re in contact with people all day.”
Eulen’s layoffs may be affecting worker and passenger safety, as well. One cabin cleaner employed by Eulen, who asked New Times not to use his name because he fears losing his job, says that with fewer people to clean the planes, the remaining workers must do twice the amount of work for the same pay.
Cabin cleaners are sometimes given only a few minutes to clean and disinfect a plane when they need at least an hour to do a thorough cleaning, the employee says. Despite American Airlines’ assurance that high-contact areas like tray tables and seatbelt buckles are cleaned prior to each flight, the employee says that at MIA, cabin cleaners sometimes only have enough time to pick up trash in the bathrooms and walkways.
In Eulen’s statement to New Times, the company said it provides employees with adequate training and PPE while on the job. But the employees say the masks the company provides are small and aren’t meant to be used long-term. The gloves are so thin, the cabin cleaner says, that employees don’t bother with them. Cabin cleaners have begun using gloves meant for crew members, or else risk touching bodily fluids with their bare hands.
“The company has never taken any real action with regard to the virus,” Gutierrez Carnet says. “It’s all about the money for them.”
Eulen has previously come under fire for numerous workplace issues, including a citation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) in November 2019 for health and safety violations, including exposing employees to blood-borne pathogens.
After a number of Eulen employees at MIA were laid off this past summer, workers gathered with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 32BJ to demonstrate against Eulen in a caravan protest.
Ana Tinsly, a spokesperson for SEIU 32BJ, tells New Times that although the union doesn’t formally represent the Eulen employees at MIA, it is calling on the company to rehire workers who were laid off to alleviate the pressure on the remaining security guards and cleaners. The union is also calling on Miami-Dade County to examine Eulen’s record of safety violations and workers’ rights issues and to consider dropping its contract. (The county oversees contractors at MIA.)
“We’re asking that the county have responsible contractors acting at the airport. We need these companies at the airport to operate responsibly and ensure that workers who are speaking out can do so without retaliation,” Tinsly says.
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