PortMiami renegotiates terminal deals, local workers brace for more cruise-less months

Taylor Dolven, Miami Heral on

Published in Business News

Over the last five years, Ghorab has seen her profit margins narrow with the competition from ride-share drivers like Uber and Lyft. Every time Ghorab enters the port, she pays $4.50 for each van and $9 for each bus. Because her prices are fixed, she can't pass that price onto her passengers like the ride-share companies do. Ride-share and taxi drivers pay just $2.

Ghorab said the port once had a designated lot for shuttles; now she and her colleagues scramble to park wherever they can without getting a ticket.

Just before the shutdown, the cruise companies started to offer ground transportation at just below her price, around $8 to downtown Miami, further absorbing some of her business.

Come August, she will owe the county a $625 fee for her business license and $650 for each of the vans -- fees she hopes will be waived. She received a $2,700 loan as part of the federal paycheck protection program, not enough to meet payments for the vehicles and the lot. A limo driver started an online petition asking the county to delay the permit renewal date until April 2021. It had more than 350 signatures this week.

"It is not survivable," she said. "We are the worst industry in the state of Florida."

Now she is staying home, working on home improvement projects and focusing on staying healthy. She had a booking for shuttle service from a hotel to the port for a Carnival Cruise Line cruise on July 31, but after the industry announced it was canceling cruises through mid-September, the customer canceled.

"We live off of the tourism. We are the face of the port and the airport. The port needs us there," she said. "I wish I had another type of business to fall back on but I don't. I invested 20 years of my life in this. It's crazy."

Innovating to survive

For Filipino crew members who work on cruise ships based at PortMiami, downtown restaurant Manila Kantina provides a rare taste of home.

Owner Judith Blasco immigrated from the Philippines in 2007 and lived in Orlando briefly before settling in Miami. She was the head chef at a Chinese restaurant in Brickell, and on her break, she would walk downtown and visit the various stores. She saw an opportunity for a Filipino market and lunch spot.

Feeding and caring for the crew members has become her life's work.

"We're not here to be rich," she said. "We're here to serve people who need us."

Blasco, 56, and her son Petronio, 28, started the business in 2012. Just one crew member came on the first day, Blasco said. But slowly word spread about the authentic cooking, and now during peak season as many as 500 seafarers visit the restaurant in one day.

The shelves along the restaurant are filled with familiar food products like mix to make bibingka (coconut rice cake) and the sugary coconut dessert sapin-sapin. Essential hygiene products like shampoo and deodorant are available, too. In the back is the $10 hot buffet of grilled eggplant, fish, noodles. Bible verses line the walls.

When crew suddenly stopped showing up at the restaurant in mid-March, Blasco lost 80% of her customers, she said. This year she hoped to expand to Fort Lauderdale to serve the crew members from Port Everglades.

Now, those plans are on hold.

"We are trying to do the best we can," Blasco said. "As long as we survive we can keep helping people."

She received $4,000 in paycheck protection program funds, but she doesn't know how long she can hold on to the restaurant. Everything she earns is going toward rent. She said she will continue cooking no matter what.

Every day she fields dozens of messages from depressed crew members. More than 28,000 are still suck at sea without pay as they wait to be repatriated. Some are still getting COVID-19.

"They are away from home, worried about their families," she said. "I want to touch their hearts."

To survive, Blasco has begun delivering-vacuum packed meals to crew members who place orders through Facebook messenger. Blasco has shipped boxes of meals to cruise ships in Florida, California, Georgia and Virginia. She doesn't charge for the shipments, just asks crew to pay what they can.

On a recent weekday, she received photos from crew members dressed in their white jumpsuit uniforms on a Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings ship, proudly posing with a package -- four garbage bags and one cardboard box full of meals -- in the deck department room.

She smiled and sighed, touching her hand to her chest. The package made it.


Working the docks

Since 1955, the building on the corner of NW 2nd Avenue and NW 8th Street in Overtown has been the home of the International Longshoreman's Association Local 1416, a union started in 1936 by Miami's dock workers.

Alex Yanes, 26, became a longshoreman shortly after graduating high school, following the footsteps of his grandfather. He wears a necklace with an anchor pendant.

Longshoremen -- despite the name, about 8% are women -- are responsible for loading the cruise and cargo ships and for transferring all goods, including luggage, on and off. The work is hard on their bodies, especially for those low on the seniority list. They move heavy machinery and work days at a time with little rest.

"We have a saying, 'No days off'," said Yanes. "It's literally no days off. We work two days straight and come home the third day."

Prior to the pandemic, Yanes and hundreds of workers walked through the doors of the union hall each morning between five and six o'clock to wait for assignments. By 6 a.m., they are out the door and on their way to PortMiami.

Between shifts, workers rest in their cars in the "chase" area, a parking lot for chasing shifts. Now that Yanes has been working at the port for nearly five years and has seniority, he spends less time in the chase area and more time at home with his girlfriend.

For Yanes, it's better work than the job he had out of high school as a restaurant server; the hours are more flexible and the pay better, he said. He uses the $22 an hour wage to help support his sisters and their kids.

As long as he works 700 hours a year, he qualifies for basic healthcare. If he works 1,000 hours, he get paid vacation and a better healthcare plan.

"You can wake up or stay asleep in the morning," he said. "It's definitely more fun; there's more freedom. I can be me. In restaurants, you have to show hospitality."

In early March, rumors started spreading around the union hall that the cruise industry -- which accounts for 60% of the union's work -- would be shutting down.

"We were hoping that it wasn't going to happen, but we knew we would be affected hard," he said. "First they said a month maybe. Then it kept longer, more than was expected."

In March, the number of cruise work hours for longshoremen was 38% lower compared to March of last year. In April, hours dropped 88%, and in May 92%. Stevedore companies contracted by the cruise lines contributed less than half the amount to workers' pensions in April 2020 as they did in April 2019.

Now only around 80 longshoremen come to the union hall every day, meaning fewer are buying lunch and shopping in the Overtown area, too.

Yanes' last day working at the port was April 18. He is living off of his savings and working part time for his father's air conditioning company. He is grateful to be able to spend more time with family, whom he rarely sees when the port is busy. He recently went fishing trip in Marathon and caught a few snapper.

"I can't last long," he said. "I don't want to spend all my money from my savings."

But he said he isn't considering another profession.

"It is my occupation," he said. "I am a longshoreman."

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