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TOM BEARDEN: Anyone who’s been through an airport lately has noticed big changes at security checkpoints. The Transportation Security Administration, the new agency created in the wake of 9/11, is now fully in charge of passenger and baggage screening at all 429 U.S. commercial airports. Many passengers say they see a higher level of professionalism in the new screeners. But some of the screeners themselves say it looks a lot different from the inside.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the largest government employee union, says 15 percent of TSA’s 55,000 member work force have signed cards saying they want to join the union, after experiencing what they call sub- professional working conditions.
La Guardia is one of about 30 airports the union has been actively organizing. Several screeners here agreed to speak out about their working conditions, despite concerns that doing so could put their jobs at risk. They mentioned certain problems repeatedly. Among them, managers and supervisors who didn’t know their jobs.
MIGUEL SHAMAH, TSA Screener: We do have some management that are just not management material. I have no idea how they even got to this position, or I have some idea how they got to this position, but…
TOM BEARDEN: How did they get there?
MIGUEL SHAMAH: For lack of a better term, I think it’s the good-old boy system now.
TOM BEARDEN: Some said standard operating procedures weren’t standardized at all, and that influential people are allowed to take items on aircraft that ordinary people can’t.
GORDON ORESKOVICH, TSA Screener: It’s one day one things… a certain item is prohibited, the next day it’s not.
WANDA DA JESUS, TSA Screener: They trained the screeners to be very self-conscious, very security oriented, very detailed, but if an airline manager or an airline employee’s boyfriend wants to bring in a lighter, the airlines… if it’s a big person from the head of the airline and goes to the terminal manager and complains, they’ll overlook it. So, you’re going to have what you call “random security.”
TOM BEARDEN: La Guardia screeners also told us sexual harassment is not uncommon.
BOB MARCHETTA, TSA Screener: We’ve had female screeners who have come and asked our advice on matters where they’ve had their buttocks grabbed. And they have been solicited to sleep with the supervisory personnel, or certain management personnel, in order to get promoted, in order to not have them ride their back, you know, or treat them in a favorable fashion. And this has gone on and hasn’t been dealt with yet. These people come to work every day, and they just have to keep their mouth closed, these women.
TOM BEARDEN: They also complained that working conditions are poor– no place to eat lunch, not even a place to change their clothes.
WANDA DA JESUS: You can’t walk with your uniform to work, but then you have to go to a public restroom where airport passengers and airport employees see you changing. To me, that doesn’t look professional.
TOM BEARDEN: The list goes on: Insufficient training to avoid injuries in a job that requires heavy lifting; a rash of cuts from sharp objects in luggage because the TSA doesn’t furnish adequate gloves. The screeners say they need a union that will force all the levels of TSA management to listen to their complaints. But James Loy, who heads the TSA, says he isn’t aware of any systematic problems among the screeners. In fact, he says he’s designing a model workplace for them.
JAMES LOY, Administrator, Transportation Security Administration: Well, I think there are leadership challenges for all of my federal security directors, and for me as the administrator of this organization. And all of these things can be dealt with adequately if you have provided the framework within which leadership can take care of a host of different things. So, my feedback– and I have gone to many airports, dealt with many federal security directors– is that the quality of those folks out there is such, they are anxious to get the job done to the maximum. And whatever is necessary to do that, they are more than willing to do that.
TOM BEARDEN: The law that created the TSA gives the agency broad powers over personnel, and exempts its workers from most civil service protections. In January, Loy precluded screeners from being represented by a union for purposes of collective bargaining.
JAMES LOY: Well, the judgment that I made was keyed directly to national security — intelligence things go by which call for instantaneous potential adjustments, whether they are in numbers, whether they’re in geographic areas, whether they’re in functional things. I don’t know that a collective bargaining framework can be designed and written that would allow us the flexibility that we need in those many, many different kinds of circumstances to do what we need to do what we’re chartered to do, for protecting the American people.
TOM BEARDEN: Bobby Harnage is president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
BOBB HARNAGE, President, American Federation of Government Employees: The law gives them all the flexibility they need, they just don’t use it. And let’s think about when they talk about moving people. In the case of a national emergency, national security, they’ve got the right to move people.
JAMES LOY: Bobby and I have met a couple of times, and I think on this one we simply agree to disagree it’s about being able to do almost yesterday, with no notice, things that seem almost impossible to anticipate when you’re sitting at a table developing a collective bargaining agreement.
TOM BEARDEN: Loy said screeners do have the right to be represented by union lawyers as individuals, in cases concerning disputes like workers compensation claims. Harnage has challenged Loy’s interpretation of the law, both in federal court and before the Federal Labor Relations Board. While awaiting those rulings, the union swore in the first screeners in March, and is going ahead with efforts to organize more TSA workers in anticipation of winning the legal battle. Mike Hurley is trying to organize several western airports, including Denver International. He says almost 300 out of 1,000 screeners here have signed cards saying they want union representation.
MIKE HURLEY, AFGE Union Representative: We need 400 to get the petition filed.
TOM BEARDEN: So, you’re getting pretty close?
MIKE HURLEY: We’re getting very close, and we’re also very close to Seattle. Portland and Salt Lake, the effort is underway, but we’re in the early stages.
TOM BEARDEN: Hurley says screeners in the West have gripes similar to those at La Guardia.
MIKE HURLEY: Particularly as it comes to shifts, assignments, promotions, demotions, all those things are done at a whim.
TOM BEARDEN: What kind of response have you seen from management?
MIKE HURLEY: TSA, at this point, what happens is the employees are scared to report anything for fear that their jobs will be in jeopardy.
TOM BEARDEN: Do you think there’s a deliberate policy of intimidation?
MIKE HURLEY: Yes, absolutely. There’s a deliberate policy of intimidation. Go find another job if you don’t like this one.
TOM BEARDEN: No screener working at Denver would talk to the NewsHour on camera, citing fears they would be fired if they did so. But some screeners did attend a town meeting with Colorado Congressman Mark Udall. Afterwards, they met with him privately to voice their concerns. Stephanie Mims was a screener who found conditions intolerable, and quit. She and other screeners say they heard supervisors openly make discriminatory comments.
STEPHANIE MIMS, Former TSA Screener: When you have a supervisor go in front of 200 employees and tell them he’s looking for blonde-hair leads and supervisors, I have problems. I don’t have blonde hair. I have graduated from college. There are no promotions for people of color.
TOM BEARDEN: Are you aware of any significant quantity of sexual harassment or minority harassment complaints inside TSA.?
JAMES LOY, Administrator, Transportation Security Administration: I am absolutely not aware of any kind of such concentration, to use your word.
TOM BEARDEN: Other Denver screeners have complained about late, and sometimes inaccurate, paychecks.
MIKE HURLEY: The worst story I was told: A young lady said she was not paid for nine pay periods, which equates to 18 weeks. But she had to come to work because she needed the job. So she went 18 weeks without being paid. That’s the worst story I’ve heard. Others say it’s intermittent.
TOM BEARDEN: Several Web sites operated by individuals have sprung up where screeners can air their grievances. The pay issue is widespread enough to have its own message board. But Loy thinks a task force assigned to the issue has fixed the problem.
JAMES LOY: I know that we have had a problem, but I believe that today, the problem of pay has been resolved.
TOM BEARDEN: Admiral Loy recently announced plans to cut the total screener workforce of 55,000 by about 10 percent, because of budget constraints. He said the move would not impact security, and he hoped to do most of the cuts by attrition. But many screeners we spoke to say some positions go unfilled now. They also claim that poor morale has already degraded overall security.
MIGUEL SHAMAH: You know, eventually, you can only abuse somebody so much before they just start saying, “you know what, what do I care?” I think it’s just a matter of time before another disaster happens.
TOM BEARDEN: But Loy insists that security today is better,, because of the good work done by the dedicated screeners.
JAMES LOY: They signed on to this organization as a calling, not as a job. And they understand the nobleness, if you will, of the work that they’re doing for the American people, and they are willing to whatever is necessary to make that happen.
TOM BEARDEN: Representative John Mica, who heads the House Aviation Subcommittee, recently demanded an inquiry into security screening at the nation’s airports. Mica asked the General Accounting Office to investigate on how the TSA trains, equips, and supervises its screeners, and to measure how their work compares to the pre September 11th private screener workforce.