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Sea-Tac screeners complain of ‘fear, intimidation’

Complaints by security workers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport have prompted an investigation by the Transportation Security Administration, The Seattle Times reported Sunday.

A letter and petition, signed by 206 of the airport's 1,100 TSA employees, claimed that managers have created a culture of "fear and intimidation" that has led to high turnover and hindered efforts to maintain security.

The employees called for an investigation into top management.

They sent the letter and petition in December to the TSA, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, several federal inspectors general, Washington's congressional delegation and Gov. Gary Locke.

Field inspectors have been dispatched as a result and will begin meeting with employees Monday, The Times reported Sunday, citing internal memos.

"An investigation such as this should serve to clear the air," Bob Blunk, TSA's federal security director at Sea-Tac, wrote in one of the memos.

Working conditions at Sea-Tac lead to stress, disorganization and weaker security for the public, screeners and supervisors said.

Although they signed their names to the petition and called for federal and state whistle-blower protection in their letter, the screeners and supervisors who spoke with The Times asked not to be identified for fear of being fired.

Blunk told The Times that he has copies of the letter, but not of the petition and signatures.
He said he was not surprised that employees are unhappy.

"They want things to be better," he said. "They want to be in a place where they can work hard and be happy."

A request for comment from TSA headquarters was referred to the Homeland Security Department, which referred the request back to TSA headquarters, the newspaper said.
In their letter, employees said:

  • Managers enforce classified security procedures inconsistently, increasing security risks. For example, some managers make screeners ask travelers to take off their shoes, while others do not.
  • Managers and supervisors lack training, resulting in personnel problems and employee intimidation.
  • Uncoordinated scheduling has led to excessive mandatory overtime and high turnover.
  • Some employees have been promoted inappropriately. One manager allegedly accepted $300 apiece from at least two midlevel supervisors to write key portions of their applications, an official familiar with the investigation and employees interviewed by investigators told The Times.

Blunk told the newspaper that investigators have been looking into that manager's activities. Blunk also has met with screeners partly because of concerns raised in the letter.
Blunk said staff turnover is now 15.5 percent. That's above the national turnover rate of 13.6 percent, he said. In August, TSA reported that turnover was 9.5 percent at Sea-Tac and about 6 percent nationally.

Screeners said turnover has meant staff shortages and long lines some days. One screener said carry-on bags randomly selected for searches sometimes are not examined thoroughly.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Seattle, has directed his Seattle staff to invite airport screeners to share their concerns.

"We will take the appropriate follow-up steps, including talking with TSA directly," McDermott said in a statement.

Once investigators are finished, they will send their report to TSA's Aviation Operations office, which oversees airport operations, Blunk said.