Rather than training being a priority, short-staffed supervisors treat it as a luxury they can hardly afford, the screeners said. Yet the lack of training could cause screeners to miss dangerous items as they move through x-ray machines or during an incorrectly performed pat-down of a passenger, the workers said.
Instead of the required three hours a week, some screeners say, their training amounts to a few minutes.
"I consider it fraud to sign for something I'm not getting," said Clarence Christian, a screener at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport since October 2002. The 44-year-old TSA worker said he repeatedly refused to sign the form despite his supervisor's orders and was transferred from the airport's main checkpoint to the smaller T-gate checkpoint.
The screeners say they are taking their complaints public because they've gotten nowhere with local TSA managers. Some are urging co-workers to join the largest federal employees union to improve workplace conditions, although screeners are forbidden from bargaining collectively. While some of the nine screeners interviewed for this article are union members, others are not.
Atlanta's top airport security official, Willie Williams, said that the complaints are the result of a misunderstanding and that the screeners are getting all their required training. He denied that screeners are falsifying training forms.
For years, various government agencies have blamed inadequate training for weapons slipping past airport security.
Former Homeland Security inspector general Clark Kent Ervin issued a blistering report before his term expired Dec. 8 in which he blamed recent failures to detect weapons and explosives on inadequate training of screeners.
Similarly, a 2003 report by the federal General Accounting Office found that screeners weren't receiving enough ongoing training. Classified portions of the report suggested weapons were getting past screeners, said Gary Burns, spokesman for Rep. John Mica, chairman of the House Aviation Subcommittee.
Some screeners described a stress-filled workplace with high turnover in which supervisors write up employees for being one minute late and require a doctor's note if an employee calls in sick.
Focus on wait time
Their workplace, Hartsfield-Jackson, is the world's busiest airport where last year, some passengers had to wait as long as 1 hour and 20 minutes to clear security. Waits have decreased since the airport added four new lanes to the main checkpoint, but long lines still form during peak periods.
The pressure to keep the lines moving, some screeners say, has gotten in the way of training.
"Their focus is to process as many people as possible. If there's a long line in the atrium, they cancel breaks," said Spiva Haynes, 44, a screener in Atlanta since 2002.
Their training often consists of "another screener reading from the SOP [Standard Operating Procedure] for a few minutes and you're not allowed to ask questions," Haynes said. "I would say we get a total of 20 minutes per week on the main checkpoint."
Screeners must have three hours of training a week, according to a TSA rule. While details of the training plan are confidential, training may include viewing x-ray images of plastic explosives, which screeners might never see in the normal course of duty but need to be able to recognize.
Screeners also may be instructed about specific threats or a change in procedures, such as whether to require passengers to remove their shoes, according to TSA officials.
The TSA puts a high priority on training because "the threat is constantly changing, and it's important to stay vigilant about upcoming as well as current threats," said spokesman Christopher White in Atlanta.
In creating the security agency, Congress said screeners must get 40 hours of training before they start work and must pass annual tests.
Williams, the federal security director for Atlanta, said Hartsfield-Jackson screeners are getting three hours a week of training, and those who complain don't understand what the TSA means by training.
"It's a misunderstanding," he said. "They thought of training as a more formalized thing, and they didn't think about briefings and other kinds of training."
Williams said training may include "any change in the SOP or local policy, a new prohibited item, and may also involve reminding employees of any shortcomings discovered when we do our covert checks."
Employees sign the forms "to ensure that supervisors are doing the training they're supposed to," Williams said. Signing the forms is a local practice, not agencywide policy, he said.
No Atlanta screener has ever been ordered to falsify a document, Williams said, adding the TSA aggressively investigates any allegations of impropriety.
Yet several screeners told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution they have repeatedly signed for training they didn't get.
"If you sign for a week's worth of training, you should get it. If you don't sign it, you're threatened with losing your job," said John Summerour, 59, who worked on the main checkpoint for more than two years. He was transferred recently to outdoor luggage screening, he said, after speaking out about workplace issues.
Screeners aren't allowed to talk about specific security breaches, but several said a lack of refresher training could cause workers to miss prohibited items or follow improper procedures.
"In general, it seems like everybody may not be on the same page," said Sheneka Peterson, 28, who works on the T-gate checkpoint. All screeners are not following the same procedures, she said.
A TSA supervisor, who spoke on condition that her name not be used, said more training is needed to reinforce procedures, such as what to do with a prohibited item such as a knife.
Every detail of the screener's job is covered in the thick SOP manual, but employees aren't allowed to take it home. If they want to read the often-changing policies, they can do so during lunch or on their two 15-minute breaks a day.
However, there is only one copy of the manual for 220 people at the main checkpoint, the supervisor said.
The supervisor also said the amount of training had increased dramatically since the newspaper began inquiring about it last month.
Ongoing training is vital for screeners to pass the annual recertification tests, said Bill Lyons, an organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, which has enlisted about 70 of Hartsfield-Jackson's 1,400 screeners.
In 2003, some screeners in Atlanta failed the tests twice and were let go, which many attributed to the lack of training, he said.
Williams said only three Atlanta screeners failed recertification in 2003-2004.
Several screeners disputed that figure, and Lyons said he was contacted by "at least 20" who failed.
Vance Berry, 49, who has worked for the TSA in Atlanta for almost 2 1/2 years, said he passed the written test recently but failed the X-ray portion twice. He blames a lack of training and practice.
Berry said was promoted to the "special assistance desk" about five months ago, where he worked with elderly and disabled travelers. During that time, he said, he didn't look at X-ray images and received no refresher training on the machines, although that is part of the screeners' annual test.
Now, he said, "My job is in jeopardy."