Saturday, July 17, 2004

Screeners' Health, Dignity Suffers Along With Air Safety

Just heard a radio commercial today offering a bright career with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) -- airport security. After reading this upsetting article, it doesn't sound nearly as attractive:
On any given day, federal workers who screen passengers and luggage at the nation's airports stand a good chance of being berated by bosses, harassed on the job, injured while lugging heavy bags, ordered to work extra hours or cheated on their pay.

In Seattle, a screener received a letter of admonishment for this offense: "Hands in uniform pants pockets." A Denver screener says a supervisor repeatedly called him "boy" — and explained it away by saying that where he is from, that's what blacks are called. A Los Angeles screener injured his arm lifting a passenger's bag that held not clothes or toiletries but a small engine block.

Some screeners struggle to stay awake while trying to spot weapons in grainy X-ray images. Some get distracted by managers prowling for petty infractions. Some have been fired by mistake, victims of bureaucratic bungling.

Morale has suffered, and with it, security.

Since the 1970s, the federal government has linked working conditions for screeners with public safety. Time and again, audits have blamed failure to detect guns, knives or bombs on low pay, high turnover, insufficient training and a kind of thankless work that combines tedium with stress.
And then there are health and safety problems, including those mysterious non-existant ergonomics problems:
TSA employees get hurt or sick more than any other federal employees, suffering back, shoulder and knee injuries, pulled muscles, tendinitis, and cuts and puncture wounds from sharp objects tucked in luggage.

In the fiscal year that ended last September, nearly one in five TSA employees sought workers' compensation, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Overall, 4.2 percent of federal workers suffered work-related injuries or illness. TSA's percentage was 19.4 — nearly five times as high, topping Park Service employees and federal marshals.

Even worse numbers loom. This fiscal year, one in four TSA workers will get sick or injured, according to an OSHA projection using first-quarter statistics.

Those numbers also create a cycle: the more workers out sick or hurt, the greater the strain on those who remain, causing fatigue and more injuries.
Without question, more physical labor is demanded of the typical TSA employee than, say, a financial analyst for the Office of Management and Budget. In fact, Hatfield said, TSA's injury rate isn't much higher than United Parcel Service's.

But many screeners attribute TSA's injury rate to insufficient training and inadequate safety equipment. They want, for example, more training on lifting heavy objects, and gloves that resist punctures.

Screeners say they regularly lift bags weighing 70 pounds or more. TSA tells screeners to get help with bags heavier than 40 pounds and warns that not doing so could jeopardize workers' compensation claims. But because of staffing shortages, screeners say, help is hard to come by.

In Los Angeles, screener Obed Quintero said he hurt his back lifting heavy bags and went on workers' compensation for seven months. When his compensation stopped, Quintero said, he asked for light duty. But the TSA couldn't find him a position, Quintero said, and let him go.

"I did an excellent job," he said. "It's kind of a shame, because what we were doing was very important."
You read things like this and all I can do is laugh (even though it isn't funny) when I think about the people you run into who say "Yes, unions were once needed -- a long time ago -- but not today:

At TSA, screeners say, it doesn't take much to run afoul of the rules and of certain supervisors.

Socks must be black (supervisors can conduct sock checks, ordering screeners to lift their pant legs), and ink must be blue (former Albany, N.Y., supervisor Todd Grandy says a boss "had a conniption" when he used a green pen to make checkmarks on a form).

Some managers dictate posture, ordering screeners to keep their hands out of their pockets or to stand at parade rest — hands clasped behind back, feet a foot apart — as though in the military.

In Portland, Ore., screeners could not take breaks in the concourse areas unless they wore coats over their uniforms and were there to buy a meal. (A cup of coffee, they were told, would not suffice.) The policy was rescinded only after screeners pointed out how much they spent at airport restaurants.

Many screeners interviewed by The Times complained of inexperienced supervisors, leadership by intimidation, and promotions based on favoritism (at least two security directors have lost their jobs over nepotism charges).

Most screeners requested anonymity for fear of being fired. But with few exceptions, The Times was able to obtain corroboration from documents or other screeners.

Unfortunately, TSA is part of the Department of Homeland Security which took away the right to TSA employees to bargain collectively. (It's all part of the new "It's necessary to destroy democracy in order to save it" program).

Across the country, many screeners have reached out to unions, members of Congress and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Although TSA forbids screeners to bargain collectively, about 700 employees have joined the American Federation of Government Employees, seeking help with lawsuits, discrimination complaints and better working conditions.

"There is no effective safety valve at TSA," said Peter Winch, a national organizer for the union. "There is no good way to raise concerns about the way you're being treated."
I guess this all must be what Under Secretary Admiral James M. Loy means when he writes that
Nothing is more important to the ability of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to achieve our mission than its employees. As we build the programs and infrastructure necessary to accomplish our critical mission we must commit to building a model workplace in which we embrace the best employment ideals and practices. Such a workplace will be based on mutual respect fairness open communication and cooperation. It will celebrate diversity and the contributions of all members of the TSA workforce and will provide an environment in which all TSA employees can do their best. There will be zero tolerance of harassment discrimination intimidation or workplace violence.