Sixteen screeners and supervisors with the federal Transportation Security Administration at Denver International Airport have come forward in interviews and letters obtained by The Denver Post with allegations of intimidation and retribution by officials at the airport. Thirteen of the employees sent letters to the office of Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo. The Post interviewed several of the screeners and either read or obtained all 16 letters, some of which were anonymous.
In the letters and interviews, screeners said they joined TSA believing their positions were a patriotic service. But managerial powers to demote and fire without oversight - a power instituted to make the new bureaucracy efficient and effective - have turned what was once a labor of love into a frustrating chore, they said.
"I'm tired of doing a good job and having my job threatened," one screener wrote. "It has gotten out of hand. I dread going to work."
Officials with TSA dismissed the claims and said morale is "very high" throughout the country.
"We are very cognizant of that," said Brian Doyle, a national spokesman for TSA. "We can't afford low morale. We go to great lengths to monitor how our screeners are doing."
Doyle said agency officials poll anonymous screeners at various airports to monitor morale.
Pat Ahlstrom, deputy federal security director for DIA, said the agency has exceeded expectations and has received acclaim from passengers, air carriers and airline personnel.
Ahlstrom said the agency is set up to maximize airline security by rewarding performance and weeding out "inadequate" workers. He said the complaints were probably coming from a few poor-performing screeners among the hundreds employed by TSA in Denver.
"There is a national belief that the government does not remove people that don't perform well," Ahlstrom said. "It was very much the intent of this organization to not have that reputation."
But screeners said that rather than eliminating inadequate workers, managers are promoting friends and intimidating, demoting and firing those who voice concerns about how the new agency operates.
Officials with a national labor organization said Denver's screeners are not the first to feel vulnerable.
"If there was a road map for how to screw things up, they are following it," said Mark Roth, general council for the American Federation of Government Employees, an organization trying to unionize screeners around the country. "This is not just at Denver. It is all over the country and the only thing consistent about them is their nuttiness."
The federation's attempt to unionize screeners was thwarted last month by James Loy, TSA's director. Loy blocked the workers' right to collective bargaining, citing the need to easily make shift changes in the event of a terror attack.
The TSA was created after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to federalize screening in the nation's 429 airports by Nov. 19, 2002. The job of inspecting every checked bag for bombs by Dec. 31 was put in the fledgling agency's hands.
Many of the agency's first employees were asked to work long hours and adapt to problems that arose in the rush to get the agency running. Now, screeners said, that request has become a demand.
The screeners who came forward - most of whom asked for anonymity, fearing they would be fired - said employee morale is so low it is only a matter of time before a mistake is made and security is breached.
They said they are expected to work long hours, ignore medical problems and endure termination threats while on the job.
"It is not uncommon to ride in on the bus and see a screener in tears," a supervisor said in an interview. "It is at a critical situation. There is nothing we can do."
James Bowers was fired from TSA last month after being placed on leave in January. Several of the disgruntled employees said his removal inspired them to come forward.
Bowers said his problems began when a screener was slapped on the arm by a supervisor. He helped the woman fill out a complaint on the incident, but it made him a target of the TSA leaders, he said.
Soon after that, Bowers was asked to work as screener - two steps down the chain of command from his position at the time. Bowers protested, but did the work.
But the retired Marine and former truck driver said he drew the line when management asked him to change his uniform to that of a screener His refusal to change his tie from burgundy (for supervisor) to blue (for screener) ultimately led to his dismissal, he said.
"That's the thing," Bowers said. "I felt there ought to be some procedure before they just demote you and I was fired for it."
Bowers filed a complaint with agency's Office of Civil Rights. But two weeks ago he received word that his complaint was not processed because of the "unavailability" of a counselor, according to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission document.
"This organization was born of a real noble cause: to re-instill confidence in the American public in safety of travel in this nation," Bowers said. "But ... any federal entity that is operating the way this entity is has no right to exist. They need to correct it or do away with it."
Ahlstrom said he could not comment on the details of Bowers' story, but said his termination had "nothing to do" with voicing grievances.
Most TSA employees are hired on a one-year probationary period allowing them to be fired "whenever a supervisor determines that an employee's performance or conduct is deficient" without the "right of reply," according to the agency's management policy manual.
The federation is still trying to give screeners a voice, but several screeners said they were told by a supervisor that if they talked to the group they would be fired.
Ahlstrom said TSA policy allows screeners to inquire about unions as long as it is done off duty and preferably out of uniform. He said he doubts anyone had threatened screeners' jobs.
Other screeners, such as Randy Wells, said TSA is a "very good organization" and any problems are simply growing pains associated with a new bureaucracy.
"I don't agree with everything that goes on," Wells said, "but it is a baby organization. You show up, you do your job and things are fine."
A spokesman for Udall said the workers' letters raised concerns, but said he could not discuss specifics without the individuals' permission.
"Mark (Udall) does have some concerns about how the department is being run, and about how employees are being treated," said Lawrence Pacheco, Udall's spokesman.