Ex-airport screeners: Patience didnt pay
Those who worked at PDX say staying on job cost them dearly
Former employees of Huntleigh USA Corp. who worked as security screeners at Portland International Airport until federal staff took over in late October shouldn't expect their promised 'retention bonuses' until April.
That's the word from Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the federal Transportation Security Administration, which last year promised bonuses to many of the 30,000 contract screeners working at the nation's 429 major airports if they stayed on the job until their duties were transferred to a staff of federal screeners.
Depending on their salary and tenure, workers were promised bonuses ranging from $500 to $2,000.
The transition to federal screeners took place at all of the nation's airports by the Nov. 19 deadline set by Congress; in Portland, the shift happened Oct. 24. Nationwide, more than 56,000 federal screeners were hired.
Before the changeover, Huntleigh employed more than 7,000 airport security screeners nationwide, including 337 at PDX.
Rhatigan said the federal agency is looking at airport security contractors, including Huntleigh, to determine whether they followed its directives during the transition.
'Our intent was that the money would go to the screeners; we are working to ensure that does take place,' she said. 'It's up on the top of the list of most important things to do.'
Hundreds await payment
Cheryl Saulberg, Jennifer Copple and Michael Dotson, three Huntleigh employees who weren't hired for the federal jobs, are among the more than 200 past and current screeners at PDX still waiting for a check they expected to receive more than three months ago.
Dotson is a former duty supervisor for Huntleigh. He is receiving disability pay while recovering from surgery resulting from an on-the-job injury suffered while working at PDX. Copple and Saulberg, who were screeners, are drawing unemployment.
'It's just the way they went about it,' Saulberg said. 'I want people to understand that we are not crybabies.' But she said the unanticipated delay of the checks is causing problems for some people.
'People are losing their apartments, they're losing their cars,' she said. 'One month would have made all the difference.'
Saulberg said she received a variety of answers from Huntleigh officials in Portland and at corporate headquarters in St. Louis when she asked about the still-unpaid bonus Ñ including the response that nothing would happen until Congress was back in session.
'Congress has nothing to do with it,' Rhatigan said.
A spokeswoman for Huntleigh USA in St. Louis said the delay 'has been that we've still not received funds from the government' to pay the bonuses.
The Transportation Security Administration also promised bonuses for Huntleigh and the other security contractors 'if they were able to provide qualified screeners to stay on the job,' Rhatigan said. In all, about $30 million will be given to screeners and contractors, she said.
The new agency, formed as a division of the Department of Transportation after the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, has its own money problems Ñ including a $3.3 billion shortfall accumulated during its first year of operation.
Kenneth Mead, inspector general for the Transportation Department, has been sharply critical of the new agency's lack of budgetary controls; for example, the agency estimated that it would cost $107 million to hire federal screeners, when the final bill, from private contractor NCS Pearson, totaled more than $700 million.
Saulberg, Copple and Dotson are not among the approximately 80 former Huntleigh employees at PDX who have filed a federal lawsuit alleging illegal discrimination on the part of the Transportation Security Administration and NCS Pearson, the contractor that tested and hired new federal screeners.
They support the people who filed the lawsuit, Saulberg said, but they think that Huntleigh also should have been named as a party in the litigation.
Bonus was incentive to stay
Copple and Saulberg were hired by Huntleigh in February 2002; Dotson started working for the private security firm in September 2001.
When she was hired last February, Copple said, she was told the job was permanent, not temporary. 'Obviously, it wasn't,' she said.
A September memo to Huntleigh checkpoint and gate-screening staff warned employees that they should wait until later to take the screener assessment, the term used for the tests given to prospective screeners. If Huntleigh employees took the test on a workday, the memo said, that would be considered job abandonment.
In retrospect, the former Huntleigh employees said, they would have had a better chance of being hired as federal screeners if they had ignored the promised bonuses, quit their jobs at PDX and immediately taken the test because of the government's 'first-come, first-served' hiring policy.
'We had that carrot in our face,' Dotson said, referring to the bonus. 'People probably could have taken other jobs in other places, but they thought it was worth staying here for our paychecks, plus getting another $500.'
When he recovers, Dotson intends to apply for a management position with the new security agency similar to the one he held with Huntleigh.
After the testing staff arrived at PDX, he said, he was told that a great many qualified people had applied for upper-level jobs, which were quickly filled.
'They didn't interview people working at the airport to see what kind of qualifications we had,' he said. 'That's really my biggest complaint ÑÊthat Huntleigh kept us from (taking the tests earlier).'
Plaintiff says scapegoat needed
According to Rhatigan, just 15 percent of 30,000 screeners from private contract companies were hired into the Transportation Security Administration work force.
Robert Hein, one of the plaintiffs in the federal suit, doesn't think that percentage means 85 percent of the screeners were incompetent; instead, he said, the government needed a scapegoat after the terrorist attacks.
'After the worldwide tragedy of 9-11, they had nobody to blame,' he said, which meant that airport security screeners who made $6 an hour were an obvious target. 'You've got to replace airport screeners with federal screeners, whether they were doing a good job or not.'
Former Huntleigh screeners in Portland said there was a strong emphasis on safety, and they pointed to the high rating that PDX airport security received before the transition to a federal security force.
Screeners involved in the Portland lawsuit contend that illegal discrimination Ñ targeting age and ethnic origin Ñ kept many of them from being rehired as part of the federal screening force at PDX, although private screeners were promised preference in hiring.
Plaintiffs also said veterans of the U.S. armed forces did not receive the preference that veterans are promised in hiring for federal jobs. Both Hein and Dotson are Navy veterans.
'We set up some very stringent criteria for the assessment,' Rhatigan said. 'It wasn't an easy process.' She said a great deal of the test 'was the ability to follow instructions É not so much their academic knowledge as the skills, the ability to follow instructions.'
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