Fired workers: Test us again
- Jeanie Senior
- Portland Tribune - News
• Ex-airport screeners claim bias, say they didn't get fair shot at federal jobs
The federal Transportation Security Administration's boast that its new airport security screeners are more qualified and better trained than the previous work force doesn't fly with Bob Hein and Emma Bradford.
Hein was a supervisor and Bradford a screener with Huntleigh USA Corp. when the company handled security at Portland International Airport. They are among the more than 50 former Huntleigh employees involved in a class-action lawsuit filed last November against the federal agency and NCS Pearson, the Minnesota company contracted to recruit and hire screeners.
During an injunction hearing last week, several of the former screeners told U.S. District Judge Robert Jones that they should be retested because of what they called a flawed and discriminatory hiring process held by NCS Pearson last October.
'We were the best of the best, and they make it sound like they replaced us with the best of the best, and that's what really irritates me,' complained Bradford, who before she went to work at the airport last year spent 20 years as a loan officer at the Portland Teachers Credit Union.
Portland attorney Don Willner, who represents the former screeners, suggested that the hiring of new screeners represented 'some attempt to say, 'We are fixing this system.' '
In the case of Portland's airport, that shouldn't have been necessary, he said, pointing out that with the Huntleigh screeners in place, it was rated one of the world's five best airports from a security standpoint.
'The inference now is we have more patriotic people, more able people doing the job,' Willner said.
In reality, he said, the new work force presents a face that is younger and whiter and includes more men than before. He said disproportionate numbers of women, Asians and blacks who worked for Huntleigh failed the tests.
'I am not saying all my clients are entitled to the job; I'm saying they're entitled to retesting,' he said. 'It was an extraordinarily sloppy way they (NCS Pearson) conducted these tests.'
While Jones ruled against the injunction, he said he will hear arguments next month on the plaintiffs' complaint that the process violated Oregon's civil rights law.
Jones said the proper administrative route on the retesting issue is to take the complaint to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. However, he urged that the former screeners should be retested and put on a hiring list. The government could benefit from their experience, he said.
Jones called the process used to hire screeners 'inherently illogical,' pointing out that new applicants were tested, trained and hired before the existing screeners were tested.
John Knepper, the U.S. Justice Department attorney representing the TSA, said the government felt it needed to have sufficient workers hired ahead of time, in case those existing screeners who failed the tests walked off the job when they were told they wouldn't be retained.
If that was a concern, Jones asked, why couldn't the agency have waited until the deadline to switch to federal screeners to tell people they weren't being rehired?
Federal screeners were working at PDX by October, well ahead of the Nov. 19 deadline for transfer of the security chore from private contractors to federal employees.
Many women not rehired
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court last November on behalf of more than 100 former Huntleigh employees, names as defendants Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta, whose agency includes the TSA, and NCS Pearson. There are six named plaintiffs, including Hein, and 45 former employees who filed affidavits with the court.
Willner said he has been contacted by attorneys in several other cities where similar security changes were made at airports, but he wasn't aware of any other lawsuits being filed against the federal government.
He said the composition of PDX's current security work force will come out in the discovery part of the lawsuit, but he offered an example of how women fared in the hiring process.
Huntleigh had a staff of 337 at PDX, with roughly 60 percent of them men, he said. But while 70 percent of the men made it onto the new federal force, only 40 percent of the women did.
Bradford, a Portland resident, said she sailed through the NCS Pearson tests, although the process took about 12 hours. As a result, 'I thought they were kidding when they told me I didn't pass.'
She received even more baffling news when she called TSA to ask about her test results. 'It doesn't say you didn't pass,' one woman told her. Eventually, Bradford said, she talked to three officials who said TSA records showed her as an active employee, still working at the airport.
Bradford lodged two formal complaints with TSA after the conversations, she said, but in the two months since she has gotten no response.
Work records damaged
Willner told the judge that the harm done is a question not solely of money but of damage to the former screeners' reputations.
Several of those suing said their quest to find another job has been hampered because they are among 'those' screeners who weren't rehired.
Many former screeners who filled Jones' courtroom last week said they are still looking for work.
One of them, Army veteran Troy Jones, who testified that he has worked as a military police officer and had top security clearance, said he now is living in a shelter for homeless veterans. Another man said he has had to file for bankruptcy.
A woman with degrees in accounting and economics from Uzbekistan State University and another woman who came to the United States from South Korea said they felt the tests unfairly gauged their skills in English. Both said they are U.S. citizens.
More than 40 of Willner's clients filed affidavits describing an arduous daylong testing process that ended in their being escorted to a back door after they were told they had failed. Some of them called their treatment humiliating. Others described the Pearson staff as variously rude, impatient and noisy.
Hein, a resident of Vancouver, Wash., worked in quality assurance at Freightliner Corp. for 28 years before taking the airport security job. He said the computer portion of the test did not accurately gauge the job's requirements.
He was given 15 seconds to determine what was in a bag, Hein said, and 'in reality, we have no time limit and in fact can rerun the bag through the X-ray machine if necessary.'