On Monday, the only Haitian restaurant at Miami International Airport began offering free lunch and dinner to federal security screeners, customs inspectors and other employees who have been working without pay since before Christmas.
The shutdown charity special by Chef Créole ended up so popular that the food had to be hauled away by hand trucks to federal workers who couldn’t leave their posts but were eager for a free meal.
“You say to yourself: ‘What can I do to help,?” owner Wilkinson Sejour said as workers wearing Customs badges and TSA jackets lined up behind him to choose between the evening offerings of fish or pork. “I guess a sandwich would help.”
Sejour estimated he gave away nearly 350 free meals by 7 p.m. on Monday. Many workers couldn’t get away for a meal, so uniformed employees showed up throughout the evening with lists from colleagues. One worker from the Transportation Security Administration, who declined to give his name, had a yellow sticky note that read: 16 pork, 4 fish. “One pork without onions?” the man asked. “That’s for me.”
There have been scattered efforts in Miami to ease the burdens of local federal workers who have been working without pay since late last year.
Over the weekend, Miami-Dade’s Parks Department waived admission at some locations for federal workers impacted by the shutdown and their guests. Parks spokeswoman Victoria Galan said nearly 80 tickets were given away at the county’s Zoo Miami alone. Museums in Miami have similar offers. Miami-Dade’s school system is encouraging families with federal workers not receiving pay to take advantage of free lunches for their children.
About 800,000 federal workers across the country had their pay cut off Dec. 22 when agencies throughout the government shut down over the lack of funding legislation for 2019. President Donald Trump is refusing to sign a funding bill without more than $5 billion for a wall on the southern border, and Democrats have rejected the demand. Now the longest partial shutdown in U.S. history, it crossed a milestone Friday when affected workers missed their first payday since the impasse began.
Workers in the military and other agencies covered by approved funding bills aren’t affected by the shutdown. Employees considered essential to security, including most assigned to airports, are required to show up for work even though they aren’t being paid. MIA closed a concourse early over the weekend to absorb staffing shortages caused by a growing number of TSA workers calling in sick and missing shifts during the weekend.
Wedged between a duty-free and baggage-check stand at MIA’s Central Terminal, Chef Créole is one of the airport’s newest restaurants. It’s part of the local Chef Créole chain, and Sejour said it’s the only Haitian restaurant operating in any airport across the country.
The night’s free offerings there — a griot burger of pulled pork, or a fish sandwich of fried swai, plus a canned soda — sell for about $9. Sejour said suppliers agreed to donate the food, including 750 pounds of pork. He said he doesn’t know how long the free meals will be available, or if the Chef Créole giveaway can last as long as a shutdown now in its 24th day. Sejour said he would like to keep the meals free for a week.
Chef Créole relies on airport workers for about 90 percent of its sales, Sejour said, so the shutdown hit at the core of his business. He recalled regulars walking by Chef Créole explaining they couldn’t afford to stop in for meals anymore. “I said bull,” Sejour recalled. “We’ll fund this.”