"Congress created [the Transportation Security Administration] recognizing that only a highly trained, well-paid, fully empowered professional public workforce can provide the protection that the American people need and expect," Andrea Brooks, AFGE's women and fair practices vice president, said at a recent news conference where the union released a position paper that outlined recommendations. But now federal screeners are faced with the possibility that their jobs will be turned over to the private sector, she said.
The union hopes to garner support for its Safe Aviation By Empowering Federal Employees Act, which would keep the screening function federalized and give TSA screeners bargaining rights, due process, veterans' preference and whistleblower protections.
AFGE staff is reaching out to both Republicans and Democrats, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., and his colleagues on the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, in hopes of finding a sponsor for the bill. There is no lawmaker publicly attached to it yet.
'Ensuring safe, secure flights'
The SAEFE Act, outlined in the union's paper, Empower Screeners to Ensure Security: Why Change is Urgently Needed at TSA, would:
Deny airports the option to use private screeners.
Lift the staffing caps to allow the hiring of enough screeners to meet demand. TSA currently has 45,000 screeners but the union says 60,000 is a more realistic number.
Improve training by allocating more time for it.
Provide adequate equipment to both speed the process of screening passengers and baggage and increase screeners' effectiveness. Reports that private and public screeners perform the same are not really accurate, Logan International Airport screener A.J. Castilla said. "I don't think it's a fair assessment when we're handed 80s equipment." Airports need better equipment that can detect metal and nonmetal weapons, he said. "Instead we're getting equipment that can read Calvin Klein on your underwear."
Guarantee screeners collective bargaining rights. "With a [proposed] staff cut and no collective bargaining agreement, our screeners will certainly be forced to work overtime," said Kim Kraynak, a screener at Pittsburgh International Airport and cochair of the airport's advisory committee. "Overstaffed, fatigued screeners are not the key to ensuring safe, secure flights."
Guarantee full whistleblower protection rights. "The whistleblowers are the best, most responsive screeners," Brooks said. "There is too much at stake for the concerns of people on the front lines of the war on terrorism to be silenced out of fear of losing their jobs."
Guarantee veterans' preference. The AFGE said the TSA ignores this requirement by redefining a "veteran" only as someone who retires from the armed forces, not those that leave under other circumstances.
Guarantee the same due process rights available to other federal employees. This includes the right to go before the Federal Labor Relations Authority for union issues, the Office of Personnel Management for pay, benefits and leave issues, and the Merit Systems Protection Board for discipline and termination issues.
Training is a particular sore point
It's required that screeners receive 40 hours of classroom training, 60 hours of on-the-job training and testing on the equipment to be used, but many screeners report that they receive less. Justin Rooney, for example, has hardly received any training at Buffalo-Niagara Airport since he became a federal screener there in September 2002, he said at the news conference. When he begins a shift, he and other screeners gather to hear where they will be stationed. That quick meeting -- which usually lasts minutes -- is considered a half-hour of training. The short meeting at the end of his shift, which outlines the number of suspicious items removed and individuals questioned, also counts for training.
If you add both meetings over five days, it can appear that he receives five hours of training a week, he said. Training is supposed to be on equipment, procedures and new standard operating procedures.
When the TSA decided to ban lighters from airplanes, Rooney didn't know. It wasn't until later in the day when he was checking a person's baggage that his supervisor began reading the new requirements to him, he said.