Airport screener discrimination complaints overwhelm TSA

By Chris Strohm

January 23, 2004

Airport screeners at the Transportation Security Administration have flooded the agency with so many discrimination complaints that it has begun to overhaul its management practices, agency officials acknowledge.

Several TSA screeners claim the agency has failed to adequately address a litany of problems they face at airports nationwide, including discrimination against minorities and veterans, selective hiring and firing practices, nepotism and management violations. They expressed frustration over the problems and said that in some cases security is being compromised.

Some screeners want a congressional inquiry into the situation and an outside organization to provide oversight of TSA because they have lost faith in the agency's ability to resolve problems internally.

TSA chief spokesman Mark Hatfield acknowledged on Friday that the agency's Civil Rights Office faces a backlog of discrimination complaints. He said the agency received 1,848 complaints during 2003. He said 41 percent of those complaints were from people who either lost their jobs as the agency downsized by 6,000 screeners to a workforce of 50,000 or were not hired.

The growing backlog of discrimination complaints was first reported in CQ Homeland Security, a Congressional Quarterly publication.

Hatfield said the agency is overhauling its human resources department and implementing procedures to address existing problems and mitigate future ones.

For example, the agency is introducing a complaint process modeled after the U.S. Postal Service REDRESS program, an alternative dispute resolution program that encourages workers to participate in mediation during the informal, counseling stage of a discrimination case. TSA also has increased the number of employees in its Civil Rights Office to 36, and is in the process of hiring 12 more employees, Hatfield said.

Screeners, however, said TSA not only has failed to resolve complaints in a timely fashion, but is not doing enough to prevent problems from occurring in the first place.

Bob Marchetta, acting president of the New York Metropolitan Airport Workers Association, said TSA has not provided screeners with adequate training on their rights. MAWA was formed last year to represent the interests of screeners mainly at LaGuardia and John F. Kennedy International airports. However, Marchetta said he communicates with screeners at other airports across the country.

The retired screener is critical of TSA's new efforts to address complaints.

"For the TSA to say they are reinventing the wheel, so to speak, is disturbing," Marchetta said. "What we have here is a situation where these rules and regulations were supposed to be in order and enforceable from day one and they haven't been yet. This is not proactive, this is reactive on their behalf."

Peter Winch, a national organizer for the American Federation of Government Employees, said screeners are contacting his union with complaints. They have reported instances of nepotism, discriminatory hiring practices, and management violations of standard operating procedures.

Winch said he was told that the phone number TSA set up to handle complaints at times has been flooded with so many calls that operators stopped taking complaints.

TSA's grievance process is also "woefully inadequate," according to Winch. "We'd like them to set up a grievance procedure where a neutral person would be able to address grievances," he said.

The agency prohibits screeners from engaging in collective bargaining, which is another area of contention for many workers. AFGE filed a motion this week in federal appeals court in an effort to win screeners the right to organize.

Hatfield said the Office of Civil Rights is working with TSA's workforce performance and training division to educate employees on how to file complaints, and with managers on ways to avoid conflicts before they arise. He said the agency would distribute materials on its conflict resolution program to employees and managers in the coming months and provide formal training on how to preempt problems and resolve them.

"We have taken significant steps to not only get to the backlog of complaints, but to process in a very timely fashion future complaints and, more importantly, to educate and provide a program to our employees and managers that will hopefully reduce the number of future complaints," Hatfield said.

By Chris Strohm

January 23, 2004