On Nov. 25, 2018, Miami International Airport workers found 61-year-old Georges Armand unconscious in the break room.
Armand’s job for Envoy, a subsidiary of American Airlines, was to drive a bus for employees and international passengers around the airport. That day, he suffered a heart attack on the job and later died at the hospital.
Armand’s colleagues say dangerous and stressful conditions for Envoy workers at MIA may have had something to do with his death. They point to low wages, understaffing and pressure from management to make on-time flight departures in a new report released by the workers’ union, Communications Workers of America, on Monday. The workers said they are forced to skip safety protocols to avoid delays and use dangerously broken equipment like belt loaders, tugs and bag carts.
Envoy employees are in charge of ticketing and bag screening, wheelchair service for passengers, loading and unloading baggage on the runway, guiding planes on the tarmac, deicing, and removing lavatory waste, among other jobs. Many spend their entire shifts on their feet.
In the week before Armand died, he worked 66 hours in six days, according to Micki Siegel de Hernández, health and safety director for the union. While it’s difficult to identify what exactly caused his heart attack, Siegel de Hernández and Armand’s family said chronic stress is a risk factor.
“My brother spent over 20 years working at Envoy Air and I’d regularly tell him to get a new job because of the intense stress, long hours and low pay,” said Prima Armand, sister of Georges Armand, in a statement. “Stress from the job, extended hours and disruption to the body’s circadian clock may have contributed to my brother’s death.”
Forty-eight Envoy workers at MIA were surveyed for the report released Monday. Two-thirds of the workers said they feel rushed to do their jobs and fear discipline if they miss flight deadlines. More than half said they skip proper bag sizing protocol to avoid delays. Fifty-eight percent said understaffing is one of the main reasons they feel rushed. Two-thirds said they are forced to work with unsafe, defective equipment.
The union report cites injury and illness logs maintained by Envoy, which it says show there were 1,459 recordable injuries/illnesses across all 8,000 Envoy employees working at U.S. airports during the 21-month period from January 2017 through September 2018. More than 800 of those injuries were strains and sprains, mostly caused by lifting, pushing or pulling.
Pay for Envoy workers starts at just $9.48 an hour, little more than half of Miami-Dade’s living wage (airlines are exempt from the county’s living wage law). A recent nationwide survey of 900 Envoy agents showed that 27 percent rely on public assistance. Others said they have to sell blood plasma, buy out-of-date food and borrow against retirement accounts to make ends meet. The union estimates the turnover rate for Envoy workers to be 40 percent annually nationwide.
James McKnight, 58, an Envoy passenger services instructor at MIA, said when workers skip steps to avoid delays and work long hours to make up for low wages, the safety of passengers is at risk.
“We’re supposed to use a bag sizer for bags, but that would force us to take delays,” he said. “The reality is when we take a delay, that agent is required to write up a report as to why the delay occurred. I would rather take a minute delay when a bag is overweight. When you have a bag in the wrong place in an aircraft it can determine whether it safely gets to its destination.”
Envoy said it cannot discuss the specific complaints in the report because of ongoing contract negotiations with workers.
“Envoy has an excellent safety record both in the air and on the ground and always places the safety of its passengers and employees at the forefront of its operations,” a spokesperson said in an email. American Airlines deferred to Envoy for comment.