Facing South Florida: Eulen America

Jim DeFede has exclusive details on a story he has been following for two years, involving unsafe working conditions facing the people who clean planes and handle baggage for Eulen America.

Video Transcript

Welcome back. For more than two years on this show we have documented the unsafe working conditions for baggage handlers and cabin cleaners at MIA who work for a company called Eulen America. Major airlines such as American and Delta have contracts with Eulen but the Eulen workers claim that every time they complained about working conditions they were threatened and intimidated. But as of this week that is about to change.

MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: This is about the treatment of our workers. This is about values in this country and honoring our workforce. Less than a month after Miami-Dade mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced plans to remove Eulen America from Miami International Airport, the company has agreed to not only improve working conditions, but hire an independent health and safety expert to monitor its conduct.

MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: I believe this is a very clear message that there is a new day in county government, that we are not going to tolerate the mistreatment of our workforce, that companies that are doing business at the airport will have to look to this as an example.

JIM DEFEDE: Levine Cava said she would now rescind her previous order and allow Eulen to remain at MIA. As CBS4 News first documented in 2019, cabin cleaners complained they were exposed to hazardous chemicals, baggage handlers worked on the hot tarmac without access to water, vehicles used to transport workers had faulty seatbelts, holes in the floor, and were overrun with cockroaches. Federal regulators levied thousands of in fines against Eulen in the past for unsafe conditions, but workers said the problems remained.

MAYOR DANIELLA LEVINE CAVA: I've been meeting with Eulen workers for years as county commissioner. I have stood with them when they protested conditions. I fully know the hardships that they experienced. I did this for them. I did this for their families. I did this for all of our workers.

EILEEEN HIGGINS: This is a Spanish-owned company that felt like they could get away with mistreating American workers.

JIM DEFEDE: County commissioner Eileen Higgins first began expressing concerns about Eulen more than two years ago on a visit to the airport she saw firsthand how the workers were treated.

EILEEEN HIGGINS: These workers were saying "we're not respected, we're not cared for, our health is at risk, our safety is at risk. When human beings-- their number one request is we would like to be able to drink water while working on the tarmac, you know it's a terrible company.

JIM DEFEDE: Eulen's conduct prompted a congressional hearing in Washington and a roundtable at the airport led by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON: A lot of people are in untenable situations but they don't say anything. But these Eulen workers were ready to speak out and to voice their complaints, and we listened.

JIM DEFEDE: CBS4 News has also learned that in the past two weeks Eulen signed a national labor agreement with the Service Employees International Union, which will cover all of the workers in all of their airports including those in New York, Washington, D.C., and Tampa. Helene O'Brien is SEIU'S Florida Director.

HELENE O'BRIEN: Some of the biggest concerns at the airport is unsafe working conditions and inability for folks to be able to speak up without fear of getting in trouble or punished. All of that is gone.

JIM DEFEDE: After the agreement was reached she broke the news to a group of cabin cleaners.

HELENE O'BRIEN: People were hugging, crying. They couldn't believe after all these years that they were able to make this happen, so it was a beautiful moment.

JIM DEFEDE: In a statement to CBS4 News the CEO of Eulen said he was glad the company would be able to continue to work at the airport. He went on to say "we care deeply about our workforce and are firmly committed to providing them with a work environment and procedures that meet or exceed industry standards. We are also committed to the success of our airline partners who rely on us for excellent service." On Friday I had a chance to speak to one of those employees, Sylvia, who has been with Eulen for more than 10 years.

SYLVIA: We are really happy about it because we think Eulen are going to be the good example-- the best example at the airport for all this company to do exactly-- they have to do the right thing for all their employees.

JIM DEFEDE: Did you think you'd get here? Did you think you'd actually get to a deal with Eulen to be able to improve conditions?

SYLVIA: Of course. We feel different right now, yes. They are started changing.

JIM DEFEDE: You can already tell they're starting to change their attitude?

SYLVIA: Yes.

JIM DEFEDE: One of the earliest critics of Eulen was Congresswoman Donna Shalala. I asked for her reaction to the latest developments.

REP. DONNA SHALALA Well I'm cautiously optimistic, and obviously for the workers I'm thrilled. At least this is a serious step forward and it says to the workers that everyone in our community expects their supervisor the companies that own the work at the airport have to have high standards in the way in which they treat workers. I personally met with the head of Eulen for the USA and literally read him the riot act in terms of our expectations. But as a community we came together. Our political leaders came together and said this will not stand. We will not have our workers mistreated in this community or any other community. So it worked.

JIM DEFEDE: Another key player was county commissioner Eileen Higgins. We spoke about her experience trying to get Eulen to do the right thing two years ago.

HELENE O'BRIEN: They did not pay attention to me. They ignored our congresswomen. They ignored a congressional hearing. And behind the scenes I always knew I was never going to give up. I was going to get these workers treated properly. And then we elected a mayor who agrees with me that our residents should never, ever be subjected to the kinds of working conditions that that Spanish company put upon them. But had she not been elected mayor and exercised her authority to revoke their permit they would never have decided it's finally time for a change and to treat their American workers properly.

JIM DEFEDE: Obviously, a story that we reported on a couple of years ago when you were first raising the issues as to a tour that you took at the airport in which you saw, first hand, a supervisor bullying other workers, and actually trying to intimidate you at one point during a visit to the airport. It's my understanding that that supervisor is no longer with the company. What's your reaction?

HELENE O'BRIEN: Well I did know that, but I don't think he should have ever been with the company after the behavior that I witnessed. Literally intimidating the workers I was with, saying to me "there's going to be trouble here," and then literally following me around the airport on another vehicle. And when we would get out or be looking at something he would be doing this to me, like "I have eyes on you." Like, what? This is intimidating behavior. If you're willing to do this to a county commissioner, imagine how you must feel if putting food on the table is dependent on your job. And these are these toxic supervisors that Eulen should have, on its own, realized don't belong in a proper workplace that respects human beings.

JIM DEFEDE: This is one company, one agreement, at the airport. It's probably not the only company that has issues in terms of mistreating employees, whether it's at the airport or through other county venues. Should this be seen as a sign to other companies that if you mistreat workers there's going to be a price to pay?

HELENE O'BRIEN: I hope so. I hope that companies are taking notice that the people of this county have elected representatives that care about them, and care about them more than they do about some of these companies, and I hope that they start changing now. And in particular we do have other companies where wage is our real issue, and lack of health insurance is a real issue, and I hope they pay attention to that. Because they need to know that I'm watching out. And I think the entire county now knows that our mayor is watching for this. And I know she is committed, and I am committed to supporting her in making sure that how we select vendors for county contracts takes treatment of workers into account all the time.

JIM DEFEDE: Higgins raises an excellent point. This is a sign of elections having consequences. When Carlos Jimenez was mayor of Miami-Dade county he did nothing to stop Eulen, and instead plotted his run for Congress. It is clear now that if he had wanted to do something these issues would have been resolved a long time ago, but he chose not to. Now as you saw in the original story I spoke to Helene O'Brien, the Florida Director for SEIU. Here is more of our conversation.

HELENE O'BRIEN: How would you address someone who says "you know what this was all about at the end of the day? You just wanted to sign up people because your goal is to get as much dues as possible." How would you respond to that? You know our goal is to Miami International Airport a very successful airport because many of our workers and members and ourselves-- our jobs depend on that airport, and so we want it to be a good airport. And it has become, like many other airports, a place that's hard to work at. And so our number one goal was to make sure the workers are strong enough and make those good jobs. That is our priority. We have been helping workers and advising workers and organizing for more than five years, and we're continuing to help low-wage workers organize to make sure that jobs get better this isn't just a silly little play for union dues

JIM DEFEDE: One of the things, though, that Eulen had raised in years past was the idea that no one was really interested in unionizing. That there was no interest in joining the union. But now that things have come together what can you tell us? Roughly how many people have signed up for the Union since all this has taken place and what's been the reaction of workers that you experienced in this agreement?

HELENE O'BRIEN: Once workers were given the free choice to decide without any pressure, and there was employer neutrality, 80% of the workers joined. They organized, they signed cards, and there was a profound sense of relief, excitement. People are really excited about the improvements that they're seeing in their jobs, that they're going to see. So it was a big success and we're really excited to get folks organizing and organizing those labor management committees and-- you know, there's a lot of problems. I mean the airline industry is not an easy industry, you know. You've got flights that come late, you've got canceled flights-- and that affects people's shifts in jobs, and there's tough problems. But when the workers who are on the front lines get to have a say on how those problems are addressed the company is stronger and the airport is stronger.

JIM DEFEDE: What's the next fight for you? Well, so, you know unfortunately in South Florida there's so many crappy jobs, so little time. But if you look at the people who are cleaning commercial office buildings in Miami-Dade County and in Broward County those are most, like airport workers, low-wage. These workers make $8.56 to $9 an hour. They're mostly immigrant women. They work at night, no paid days. They get exposed to COVID, to many other dangers in the job, and they are now organizing for justice. So it's a big justice-for-janitors campaign, and so we're really excited about it.

JIM DEFEDE: We're talking about those big office buildings like you see downtown Miami-- other places that are you know, maybe 40, 50 stories tall-- and these are the workers that go in overnight to clean up.

HELENE O'BRIEN: Yes. Miami real estate is one of the most profitable and successful real estate industry in the country, and right now we keep hearing about all these companies moving from New York and California to come here and we're excited about that. But hopefully they're going to be a voice for positive change because those workers are making minimum wage. You've got billionaires and trillionaires and hedge funds owning these properties, and you've got $9 an hour workers with no benefits and protections cleaning those buildings. So we're looking forward to changing that.

JIM DEFEDE: I look forward to learning more about that campaign. We'll be right back.