Commentary: Heartbreaking to Heart Warming

Commentary: Heartbreaking to Heart Warming

Every now and then I hear about a story that really tugs at the heart strings and reaffirms my faith in humanity. I want to share the story of one woman’s fight to get back her job of almost 20 years, allegedly for asking for a $20 tip. Thankfully, caring people stepped up and made a difference in the life of this hard-working immigrant at Dulles Airport. Nevertheless, this is also a cautionary tale about how important and necessary is excellent reporting, in this case by Theresa Vargas at the Washington Post.

The recent Aug. 1 Washington Post story of Isata Jalloh is one of the American dream personified and how that dream was shattered. Isata immigrated to the United States in 1996 from war-torn Sierra Leone in search of a better life for herself and her family. She found that life here in Virginia, working almost 20 years at Dulles Airport as a maintenance worker and wheelchair attendant. Through her work, she was able to provide for her family in Sierra Leone, sending them money each month to cover their living expenses. However, that all changed last month when she was abruptly fired from her job.

Isata has primarily worked two jobs, cleaning the airport at night and shepherding individuals through the airport in wheelchairs during the day. These aren’t easy or glamorous jobs, but they allowed Isata to provide for herself and critically, her family in Sierra Leone who depends upon her contributions each month. The reason Isata was fired after 20 years of hard work? She asked for a tip after pushing a customer in a wheelchair, which is prohibited according to the Post article. Now, the idea that asking for a tip is a fireable offense is bad enough, but Isata completely denied the charge. Despite her denial, she was offered no opportunity to defend herself or for there to be any kind of proper review. Instead, 20 years of hard work and good will disappeared in an instant.

Upon closer inspection, it may be that her firing is not random at all. There has been a three-year fight between her employer Huntleigh USA (the contractor she is employed by at the airport), and workers to unionize so that they can receive a living wage and fair benefits. Until earlier this year, workers were only paid $7.25 an hour causing employees to work incredibly long days to earn a livable wage. Isata was working 16 hours a day, seven days a week, at the airport just to make ends meet. Finally, at the beginning of this year, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) mandated companies that employ workers at the airport pay them $11.55 an hour. However, Isata was not receiving the full $11.55 an hour due to the mutual understanding that the difference would be made up in tips. Due to these conditions, there have been several worker strikes and negotiations to unionize over the past three years, and Isata has been a prominent advocate for unionization.

According to union organizers, at least three other immigrant women have been fired in recent months. Like Isata, they were apparently given no opportunity to defend themselves against accusations of wrongdoing. These firings of the most vulnerable among us are callous and completely counter to the values of Virginia. In Virginia, we don’t tear apart the life of a hard-working immigrant, we help them. We support individuals that come to America looking for a better life and make the sacrifices to achieve that dream. This situation is a heart-breaking example of why we need to protect the basic rights of workers. The fact that Huntleigh USA was able to summarily rip these women’s lives apart is a stain on us all. Yet, even in this dark moment, we have seen the kindness we are all capable of. Hundreds of Washington Post readers responded with financial help and encouraging letters of support. Many wrote to Huntleigh USA urging a change in their policies. Union organizers from 32BJ SEIU, clergy and elected leaders, and others held a rally for the fired women. One of the women who was let go, found herself unable to pay her rent and on the verge of eviction. Her fellow co-workers banded together to pay her rent, so she and her mother would not be turned out on the street. And, just this week, Huntleigh USA found the common sense to reinstate Isata and allow her to continue to work hard at her American dream. “God bless America. God bless the people,” Isata told the Washington Post in Vargas’ follow up article on Aug. 13. Indeed, we live in a world full of love and grace and it is important that we all reflect on that.