Most people who fly into Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on their way to meet a cruise or spend a weekend at the beach never see Ernise Ducasse, a Haitian immigrant and single mother of three who works as a cabin cleaner. She’s the one who has the unenviable task of removing wads of chewing gum from underneath the seats, vacuuming ground-up Cheez It-dust off the floor, and throwing out the trash left behind in the seatback pockets.
Several months ago, Ducasse began noticing that her paycheck seemed short. When she started writing down the hours she worked, including the times she was asked to come in early or leave late, it never quite matched up with what was written on her pay stub. Finally, fed up, she decided to file a formal complaint with the Broward County Commission, arguing that she’d been a victim of wage theft.
Although she works onboard Delta planes, Ducasse’s job is contracted out to a company called Eulen America, which also provides services for Miramar-based Spirit Airlines. That’s part of a nationwide trend, explains Ana Tinsly, a spokesperson for 32BJ SEIU, which represents the airport employees.
“Airport jobs used to be good jobs, but in recent years, airlines have started to outsource their service jobs to low-bid contractors, who often cut costs on the backs of workers,” she says. “This has led to lower wages and less benefits.”
Last year, 32BJ SEIU was able to score a major victory by getting the commission to agree to pay all contracted airport workers a living wage. But they’ve been hearing complaints from employees like Ducasse, who say they’re missing hours from their paychecks.
“Usually, it will be a few hours here and there,” Tinsly says. “Often it’s when they are asked to come in early or stay late. What many of the workers say is that if they catch the missing hours, they will complain and sometimes they get paid back. But it is something that they constantly have to be vigilant about.”
After a long day at work, it’s easy to be too tired to write down the exact hours you worked — or to simply forget to do it. Ultimately, Ducasse ended up being one of only five workers who had detailed-enough records to file a complaint against Eulen and get paid the money she was owed.
“Under my complaint, I was trying to recover $147 in missing wages since February,” she told the Broward County Commission yesterday. “That may not seem like a lot to some, but I'm living paycheck to paycheck. That’s money that could be used to buy food for my children.”
She notes that the majority of workers at Fort Lauderdale are black, many of them immigrants from Haiti and other Caribbean countries. Those who speak English as a second language are the most likely to be exploited.
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“I keep track of the hours I work — what about the workers who don’t?” she asked Tuesday. “What about the ones that are too scared to speak up?”
Already, there are signs that Eulen will retaliate against workers who complain about wage theft. Nadieu Charilus, one of the workers who filed a complaint, was fired shortly after he was paid the $361 he was owed, despite the fact that he’d worked for Eulen for 16 years and had no disciplinary record. Ducasse had her hours cut back from 28 to 18 a week. And other workers have been fired for participating in protests and attempting to organize for better working conditions, Tinsly says. The National Labor Relations Board is currently reviewing those allegations.
Meanwhile, Tinsly says that Eulen has yet to admit wrongdoing, even though they did offer to pay back the employees who could prove that their paychecks were short. (Representatives from Eulen could not immediately be reached for comment.)
In response, workers walked off the job at 9 p.m. on Tuesday and held a 24-hour strike that lasted until last night. They’re currently asking the Broward County Commission to do a full audit of Eulen’s payroll and attendance records for the past two years to determine whether other workers have experienced wage theft and to consider revoking Eulen's permit to do business at the airport.
“This is the fourth time workers have gone on strike at Eulen,” Ducasse pointed out to the commissioners Tuesday. “There is obviously a problem.”