Recent news coverage regarding the new pat-down procedure used by passenger screeners of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) focuses on two primary issues: the embarrassment of passengers who feel uncomfortable going through the procedure in public and reports of screeners performing the procedure inconsistently. I am a federal security screener at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, and I face the frustrations experienced by the traveling public daily.
But the media reports leave out one important element: training. It's not surprising that travelers face apparently inconsistent searches by passenger screeners when you consider the TSA's negligence in complying with the congressional mandate that screeners receive three hours of training each week.
(Tsa Workers Screen Passengers At Denver International Airport./)
We are subjected to recertification testing, and screeners are dismissed if they fail a computer test on TSA policies. We are also subjected to testing on pat-downs by Lockheed Martin Corp. workers as a condition of keeping our jobs. But it seems that the only time training is taken seriously is before this testing.
Before each shift, screeners attend a briefing, which is goes down in the books as training time. In my case, on C Pier at BWI, 25 to 30 screeners attend a briefing in a room that measures 12 by 14 feet; most are standing and at least 10 of us have to listen from outside the door. Many trainers seem unprepared for questions and appear to have no training experience. Some are downright belligerent. Recently, when a screener complained that a new procedure for detecting trace amounts of explosives put him at risk, he was told that he took the job knowing that it involved risks and that if we didn't follow each procedure to the letter, we could be terminated without notice. Eventually the trainer burst into tears at screeners' continued questioning.
That is an extreme case, though. Typically we are told that trainers are simply reading the briefing materials when they answer our questions, indicating to me that they don't understand the information themselves.
The TSA will not allow screeners time off from their checkpoints for training because many airports are severely understaffed. The agency did not plan properly for the loss, a little over a year ago, of nearly half its screening workforce to the task of inspecting checked baggage. Moreover, although our federal security director recently was awarded a $20,000 bonus, the TSA apparently lost its training rooms at BWI because it was unable to pay rent on them. Even the rooms where we take our breaks, which also serve as training rooms, may soon be lost. At the TSA's headquarters, meanwhile, workers enjoy the use of a private gym, so apparently money isn't scarce everywhere.
The new personnel system has caused an attrition rate of more than 20 percent this year, according to sources inside the agency. Who would want a job in which you are told you have to be perfect every time or people may die? Who would want a job in which passengers can be belligerent and at times may physically assault screeners, while management appears to be primarily concerned with passengers' customer service experience?
We are not covered by most laws that protect the federal workforce. We are not permitted collective bargaining rights, although the Transportation Security Administration is officially neutral on private screeners' having such rights. This leaves screeners vulnerable to cronyism, favoritism and arbitrary disciplinary actions -- just the sort of abuses the civil service system was created to prevent. Incredibly, the TSA's parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security, is considering a similar personnel system.
The problem is not a lack of technology, although technology should be improved when possible. The problem is not a federalized workforce. The problem is the personnel system. President Bush opposed the creation of the TSA until a provision was written into the law creating an experimental "merit"-based performance system. I am not aware of any screener who has received a merit raise in the agency's brief history.
It is time for Congress to step up and take its oversight role seriously. A full investigation of the new personnel system should be conducted. Screeners should be permitted to provide testimony without fear of retribution. Are they receiving adequate training? Is the new personnel system meeting the expectations of Congress?
The next time you feel that a pat-down is intrusive or that a screener seems frustrated or even unprofessional, let the supervisor know. But also let Congress know that it is time to provide real oversight.
The writer is a federal security screener working at Baltimore-Washington International Airport and president of Local 1 of the American Federation of Government Employees. He will be online to discuss this article today at 11 a.m. at www.washingtonpost.com.