Isata Jalloh didn’t stop to take off the yellow rubber glove she used for cleaning.
The Dulles International Airport maintenance worker had heard children were flying in from Sierra Leone, the country she had left years earlier, and she needed to see them. When they arrived, their bodies spoke of the brutality she had escaped: A 4-year-old girl was missing her right arm below the elbow. A 4-year-old boy had lost his left leg beyond his knee. A 15-year-old girl’s left arm stopped at her wrist.
Jalloh didn’t know any of them, but she rushed in their direction, pulled them into a hug and sobbed.
That emotional embrace was captured by a Washington Post reporter and photographer who were at the airport to cover the children’s arrival in 2000. Jalloh’s impromptu reaction is detailed in the last few paragraphs of the article, and a photo shows her pained face. Jalloh never saw either. Not that she needed a newspaper clip to remind her of that day.
Nearly 18 years later, she recalls in vivid detail what airline brought the group, Air France, and why she cried so hard when she saw them.
The tears were for the children in front of her, she said. But they were also for four children who weren't there — her own. She had left them in Sierra Leone and during the country’s civil war, she couldn’t easily reach them by phone.
“Where are my kids?” she recalled thinking often. “At that time, I felt so confused, crying and crying.”
Jalloh came to the United States in 1996 when her children were 14, 12, 10 and 9, with the promise that she would send her mother enough money to give them a better life until Jalloh could secure visas for them to join her in the United States. For nearly two decades, her work at Dulles Airport helped her keep that promise, and in recent years, she has sent them as much as $500 a month.
Then last month, she had to tell them she couldn’t send anything.
This month, she will also have nothing to spare.
For 20 years, Jalloh has worked at Dulles, and for the last 14 of those, she had held two jobs there, cleaning the airport at night and pushing people in wheelchairs through its terminals during the day. Both jobs have meant spending all but 7½ hours most days at the airport. But it also meant she could afford to pay the rent for an apartment in Herndon she shares with three people and still send money to Sierra Leone.
That changed in May, when she was fired from the wheelchair job.
Her supposed offense: Asking for a tip.
Jalloh denies doing so but said it doesn’t matter because she was not allowed to defend herself and no investigation was done. She showed up to work one day, she said, and was told she no longer had a job. The ease in which that happened speaks to the vulnerability of low-wage immigrant workers who can stand on seemingly steady ground for years, or even decades, and with the slightest kick, feel it crumble beneath them.
Wheelchair agents, unknown to many in the public, are paid based on the assumption that they will earn tips, and yet they are not allowed to let passengers know that. Many of these workers were earning as little as $7.25 an hour before the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority’s board in January started requiring companies that do business at the Dulles and Reagan National airports to pay contract workers a base hourly wage of $11.55. Jalloh said even so, she was earning $10.45 an hour, with the understanding that $1.10 was being deducted because of tips.
These workers are also not protected by a union, despite a nearly three-year push to organize and multiple worker strikes, the most recent occurring in December. Jalloh believes her activism in support of a union is the real reason for her firing.
At least four immigrant women have been fired at the airport in recent months, according to union organizers. They all worked for the same Texas-based company, Huntleigh USA, and they all claim they were not given a chance to defend themselves. One woman was left unable to pay her rent in the D.C. area or her mother’s hospital fees in her native Ethiopia. She and her mother were both facing eviction when co-workers pulled together funds to help, one union organizer said.
“Immigrant women already struggle more than most to support their families,” said Jaime Contreras, a vice president for 32BJ SEIU, which has been working to negotiate on behalf of the airport workers. “We will not stand by idly as Huntleigh cuts a lifeline to these women who are barely hanging on.”
A call to Huntleigh, which employs hundreds of workers at Dulles and Reagan, was not returned. The company as of Wednesday also had not responded to a letter sent to it by clergy members, elected officials and others on behalf of Jalloh and other women.
“We believe that the circumstances under which these women were fired are arbitrary and unfair,” the letter reads. “Today community members, clergy men and women, and elected officials are all joining together in asking that your company do the right thing and give these women their jobs back.”
That’s the only right move in this situation. By discarding these employees for such petty violations — if there is even proof they asked for tips — the company is hurting some of region’s most vulnerable workers, some with long histories at an airport that serves as the first introduction for many visitors to the nation’s capital.
The company is also severing crucial lifelines, because we know this: When these women lose their footing, their fall is felt not only in the Washington region but also in countries with long histories of brutal acts taken against the defenseless.
“They have nothing,” Jalloh, 54, said of her children, crying. They are now grown but can’t find employment in their country that will allow them to even afford the $800 a year they need to pay rent, she said. She filed the paperwork years ago for them to receive U.S. visas, but none have yet come through.
She said she needs to find a way to send them money again.
“Nobody helps them,” she said. “Only I help them.”
Jalloh insists that she has never asked for a tip, even when she has been handed nothing, or a single quarter, which happens.
The tip that led to her firing she said came from a couple from Saudi Arabia flying first class. She said her managers never spoke to them or they would have known that the only discussion that occurred about money took place between the couple and in Arabic. Jalloh said she and another wheelchair worker had taken the couple to where they needed to go and once they stopped, the man pulled out a $20 bill for them to split. Jalloh said she would have been grateful for that amount but that the man’s wife then said something to him in Arabic, and he pulled out two $20 bills, one for each worker.
Jalloh said she walked away from the encounter happy, thinking it was a lucky day.