By Jim DeFede

MIAMI (CBSMiami) — Faced with the looming reality they were being forced out of Miami International Airport, Eulen America, the company representing cabin cleaners and baggage handlers at the airport, agreed to a long list of improvements for its employees, CBS Miami has learned.

“This is about the treatment of our workers. This is about values in this country and honoring our workforce,” Miami Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said. “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. [And] that companies that are doing business at the airport will have to look to this as an example.”

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Last month, Levine Cava terminated Eulen’s permit to operate at the airport, giving the company the required six month notice to leave. On Thursday, Levine Cava rescinded her previous order and will allow Eulen to remain at the airport.

Airlines contract with Eulen, whose corporate headquarters are in Spain, to provide an array of services at airports up and down the East Coast. At MIA, American Airlines hires Eulen to clean the cabins between flights. Delta uses Eulen employees for loading and unloading baggage, as well as cabin cleaning. Eulen also provides various airlines wheelchair and customer service representatives.

On Thursday afternoon, Eulen America, CEO Xavi Rabell released the following statement:

“We care deeply about our workforce and we 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.”

Eulen has contracts with airlines in Tampa, Washington, D.C., and New York. Before the pandemic Eulen had about 3,000 employees nationwide, with nearly 900 in Miami.

As CBS4 News first documented in 2019, in a series of reports called, “MIA’s Forgotten Workers,” cabin cleaners complained they were exposed to hazardous chemicals; baggage handlers on the hot tarmac worked without access to water; and vehicles used to transport workers had faulty seatbelts, holes in the floor and were overrun with cockroaches. In the past, federal regulators levied thousands of dollars in fines against Eulen for unsafe conditions, but workers said the problems remained.

“This is a Spanish owned company that felt like they could get away with mistreating American workers,” said County Commissioner Eileen Higgins, who first began expressing concerns about Eulen more than two years ago.

On a visit to the airport in 2019 she said she saw firsthand how the workers were mistreated.

“These workers were saying, `We’re not respected, we’re not cared for. Our health is at risk. Our safety is at risk. We’re not allowed to drink water during the day,’” Higgins recalled. “And when human beings’ 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.”

Eulen’s conduct prompted a Congressional hearing in Washington and roundtable at the airport led by Congresswoman Frederica Wilson and then-Congresswoman Donna Shalala.

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“A lot of people are in untenable situations, and they don’t say anything,” Wilson said. “But these Eulen workers were ready to speak out and voice their complaints. And we listened.”

Last year, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand brought a Eulen worker as her guest to the State of the Union. The woman, Hacheler Cyrille, was seventeen weeks pregnant when she was injured on a conveyor belt as a baggage handler at JFK.

The Miami Dade Mayor said she has long been aware of the plight of Eulen workers but didn’t have the power to do something about it until she was elected.

“I’ve been meeting with Eulen workers for years as county commissioner, I have stood with them when they’ve protested conditions,” Levine Cava noted. “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.”

Another major break in the Miami discussions occurred two weeks ago after Eulen finalized a national labor agreement with the Service Employees International Union. Eulen had fought the union’s attempt to organize for years, claiming its workers did not want to be represented by SEIU. The agreement, which labor leaders are calling historic, spells out new safety protocols, including requiring Eulen to hire an independent health and safety inspector to monitor its conduct. That inspector will have the right to review company records and interview employees, in private, during working hours.

“That is unheard of in the industry,” said Helene O’Brien, SEIU 32BJ Florida director. “And we are so excited that Eulen has made that commitment because now we’re going to try to bring it to all the companies in the industry. And that makes it a safer place for workers to work.”

Under the pact, Eulen will establish a Labor-Management Committee, so workers can bring complaints forward. While the agreement guarantees the company can’t cut employee wages, the overriding issue, were the safety concerns, O’Brien said.

“Some of the biggest concerns at the airport is unsafe working conditions, and an inability for folks to be able to speak up without fear of being getting in trouble or punished,” O’Brien said. “All of that is gone.”

Despite the claims by Eulen to the contrary, O’Brien said more than 80 percent of the workers have joined the union. After the agreement was reached, she broke the news to a group of cabin cleaners.

“People were hugging, crying. They couldn’t believe after all these years that they were able to make this happen,” O’Brien said. “So it was a beautiful moment.”

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Jim DeFede