"It's a very crucial issue for us and we take it seriously," said Brian Turmail, a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration. "We have committed extra staff to our payroll facility. Our goal is to ensure that all screeners are paid on time the first time."
TSA took credit this week for meeting a tough congressional deadline for staffing all passenger checkpoints with federal screeners. But some employees were in no mood to celebrate. One Southern California screener is fending off creditors after going a month without pay.
"My car is going to get repossessed any day now, and I'm just wondering when," said the screener, who asked not to be identified for fear of being fired.
The screener, who has a family, earns about $13 an hour. The job comes with a full package of federal employee benefits.
"The job is good, and I enjoy meeting people," the screener said. But "everything is so unorganized right now. They've got paperwork flying everywhere."
At one point, an average of 500 screeners were not getting their money on payday; that is down now to about 300, Turmail said.
Missed checks are just one example of personnel problems that include schedules subject to unpredictable changes and workers not getting credit for overtime and training hours. says a union official who is trying to organize the more than 40,000 screeners.
Six Weeks of No Pay
"They are not being treated fairly and they don't have any voice," said William Lyons, a national organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees. One screener went six weeks without a paycheck, he said.
"This is the largest single work force hired in years," Lyons added. "If they didn't need union representation, I wouldn't be getting calls from all over the country."
AFGE, which represents 650,000 federal workers, could add as many as 50,000 more dues-paying members if the organizing drive succeeds. Under current law, screeners can join a union, but they are not permitted to strike.
Union representation may be jeopardized when screeners come under the umbrella of the new Department of Homeland Security. President Bush fought Democrats in Congress to win authority to waive collective bargaining rights for homeland security employees. But it's still unclear whether he will use that power broadly or focus on units carrying out very sensitive missions. Bush has also said he wants to preserve the rights of workers.
TSA spokesman Turmail said the agency regards its screeners as the foundation of effective security and is striving to resolve pay and personnel problems.
Some of the difficulties are the inevitable consequence of having had to hire tens of thousands of people in the span of a few months. "It's simply the logistical challenge of entering several thousand individuals a week into a system where folks' information needs to be entered manually," Turmail said.
Largest Force at LAX
At Los Angeles International Airport, which has the largest screener force of any airport in the country, federal security director David Stone said he wants to eliminate payday glitches.
"Pay is the issue where we are pushing to get it right," he said.
On the last payday, Nov. 12, Stone said 130 of his screeners did not get their wages. He said he has cut that down to fewer than 30 with potential problems for the upcoming Nov. 26 payday, two days before Thanksgiving. LAX currently has more than 2,200 screeners and Stone expects that number to grow to 3,200 by the end of the year.
Stone said his staff has been calling creditors on behalf of employees and issuing letters that screeners can take to their landlords. Some screeners have received emergency advances on the pay that was being held up.
The problem was created by a number of factors, from bottlenecks in information processing to employee mistakes, Stone said.
In about 20% of the cases, screeners provided incorrect account numbers for direct deposit. The rest of the foul-ups were the result of various logistical problems involving TSA's payroll unit or a contractor assisting with the hiring process.
At one point, LAX was shipping paper time cards to TSA's payroll facility in Oklahoma City. Stone said he decided that procedure was unacceptable in the age of computer networks. LAX now files payroll data electronically.
"We did not want to be tied to manually bundling up time cards," Stone said. "LAX is one of the first airports to go to electronic pay. Eventually, the rest of the airports will be doing the same."
Not getting paid is especially demoralizing for employees, but constantly changing work schedules are another sore point with screeners.
"Folks with child-care issues get their schedules for the next week, make all the arrangements, and then two days later the schedule changes," said Lyons, the union organizer.
Turmail said screeners are warned that schedules may be unpredictable at first. After an initial period, airports set up advance schedules for each calendar quarter.
Annual rates of 100% screener turnover were common before last year's terrorist attacks, when private security companies were responsible for the jobs. Turmail said TSA's turnover rate is currently a little more than 2%.
A stable work force is one of the main goals for LAX security director Stone. I want high retention and low attrition," said Stone, a former Navy admiral who advocates a people-oriented management style.
"We need to ensure that we are taking care of our people. The quality of life and quality of work for my screening force is my top priority." If you want other stories on this topic, search the Archives at latimes.com/archives. For information about reprinting this article, go to www.lats.com/rights.