Addressing a packed house at the St. Albans Historical Museum, Sanders opened the meeting with a statement that explained the reason for the session and set the tone for the evening: “Morale in Homeland Security is not the highest in the country.”
Sanders brought with him a panel of officials from local and national unions – including frontline customs and border officers -- representing Homeland Security employees.
Attendees raised multiple issues including the threat of privatization, understaffing, inadequate training, and the loss of experienced staff. Many of these issues are interconnected and pose dire consequences locally, said policy critics.
Invited speakers and attendees repeatedly described a situation at the border in which employees are working 60 to 70 hours a week as a result of understaffing. Understaffing also means less time for training, they said.
Long hours, including customs inspectors who work double shifts, go home for eight hours, and then return to work, impact workers’ health, and their ability to do their jobs, according to Cris Buckles, a National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU) officer who works at Derby Line.
“We can’t do our best if we’re beaten down every time,” said Buckles.
Many of those present expressed concern not only for their own quality of work, but for the safety of American citizens.
Glen Dockham, president of NTEU Chapter 142, and a Vetting Center Officer, described how when he started work as a customs inspector at Highgate Springs in 1997 everyone had 10 to 15 years of experience. Now many of those experienced people have been lost, leaving new hires no one to turn to with questions, he said.
Dockham also expressed frustration with how the border security operation is being run. Behavior analysis has been replaced with computer checks and mandated questions, according to Dockham. The same trucker can cross the border 10 times in one shift and he must be looked up in the computer each time.
Joining other speakers in expressing frustration over staffing, Dockham said, “If we have proper staffing, we can find a balance between legitimate trade and protecting our country.”
In September 2003, the Department of Homeland Security began a “one face at the border” initiative combining previously specialized positions in immigration, customs and agriculture.
Dave Souter, who works at Highgate Springs, described the loss of trained immigration staff at the port. In 2003 when customs and immigration were combined, one-third of the Highgate staff was from immigration. Eight officers are leaving this year, and with the loss of those officers only 10 percent of the inspectors at Highgate will be legacy INS staff.
“Immigration law is large and complex,” Souter said. INS inspectors used to receive advanced training in immigration law. That no longer happens, according to Souter.
Workers also are concerned about the loss of their jobs to private firms. Office of Management and Budget Circular A-76, issued in May 2003, sets out guidelines for privatizing federal government jobs.
Karyn Dubie is director of the Eastern Forms Center in Williston, which has undergone an A-76 review. She described a situation in which information was gathered in secrecy, creating an environment of uncertainty and fear.
The process, in which federal employees are allowed to “compete” for their jobs against private companies, took more than a month of Dubie’s time, she said. Other employees spent similar amounts of time on the process. Workers have still not been informed of the results, it was announced last night.
One attendee, who did not give his name, stated, “A-76 is not about the rank and file. It’s about the president being able to stand up and say, ‘I cut federal jobs.’ We see how the SCOT people are treated. They’re treated like dirt.” His remarks were met with widespread applause.
Sanders agreed, saying The Bush administration “has an ideology in which unions are bad and corporations are good.” The administration has publicly stated a desire to cut the federal work force by 50 percent Sanders said, adding, “We’re gonna stop them.”
Christy, who only offered her first name, does clerical work for DHS. She expressed concern about security issues created by privatization. With work being re-bid every few years, more people will acquire security codes and knowledge of systems and information that should be private and secure, she said.
Acknowledging her point, Sanders reiterated his position that the country is best served by a well-paid, well-trained, dedicated civil service.
Privatization means lower salaries and fewer benefits, Sanders said, and that has a negative impact on the entire workforce, encouraging a downward spiral with lower wages and benefits for all workers. “The work you do,” Sanders told the audience “should only be done by highly-trained public employees.”
Michael Kiey, adjudication officer with the Vermont Service Center and vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 2076, talked about the impact even the threat of privatization and job loss has on employees.
Every day someone comes into his office worried about losing his or her job, he said. Fearing for their jobs, employees are reducing their spending and that has an impact on the whole community, according to Kiey.
A man from the Law Enforcement Support Center in Williston stated, “We are only here because of the mission,” a sentiment shared by others who expressed concern about DHS employees’ ability to do their jobs well under current conditions. “If any officer misses that one person, it affects the United States,” Buckles said.
Sen. Sanders message for those in the room was two-fold. “Don’t let anyone tell you for one second that the work you are doing is not important,” he said, adding, “Hang in there. We are trying to turn this around.”