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Federal Screeners Take Up Posts at BWI Checkpoints

Most have Military or Police Experience by Sara Kehaulani Goo, Washington Post

The new face of the federal airport screening force was revealed to the public yesterday at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. It is older, better educated and better compensated.

Of the 221 federal screeners who took their posts for the first time at airport checkpoints, most had a military or law enforcement background, and the majority were white men. None of them were foreign citizens.

BWI is the first airport in the nation to get federal screeners. Transportation Security Administration officials said all of the 500 to 600 private-sector screeners at BWI will be replaced by federal employees within six weeks. After the Sept. 11 hijackings, Congress passed a law requiring that all 429 U.S. airports have federal screeners to tighten security.

To prepare for their new jobs, the screeners had 40 hours of classroom training, five times as much training as private-sector employees. The federal screeners will also have 60 hours of on-the-job training.

Peter Winch, a national organizer with the American Federation of Government Employees, which is trying to persuade the TSA to let federal screeners join a union, said the approach could backfire.

"These people are overqualified, and they will get bored," Winch said. "They should be hiring the best of the current workforce."

The federal team that took over BWI's A and B concourses yesterday replaced screeners employed by Argenbright Security Inc., whose contract expired Monday night. Laid-off Argenbright screeners were told that they can apply for federal screener jobs.

But the the law specifies that veterans be given priority in hiring. It also requires federal screeners to speak English, be U.S. citizens and have a high school diploma or equivalent or one year of experience as a screener. Many private-sector screening companies did not require a high school diploma or equivalent.

The TSA is also giving priority to airline employees laid off after Sept. 11 and to law-enforcement officers, said Pamela Pearson, a TSA personnel administrator.

Of the 1,700 federal screeners the agency has hired so far, 58 percent have college degrees. About 60 percent have military backgrounds.

"They look like America," said John W. Magaw, undersecretary of transportation for security.

At BWI yesterday, about two-thirds of the federal screeners were male and the overwhelming majority of them were white -- a striking difference from private-sector companies, which hired a large number of immigrants.

A TSA spokeswoman said the military backgrounds may be one reason for the large number of males, but she said the agency is "striving to have more women" because women may ask that only female screeners pat them down.

"We are moving toward a federal screening force that represents the United States' vast cultural and ethnic diversity," the spokeswoman said. The screener jobs pay $23,600 to $35,400 a year. Employees get health and life insurance, retirement benefits, paid vacation, and sick leave. Private-sector screeners' pay was increased after Sept. 11 to about $21,000 a year, but most companies do not provide benefits or paid vacation.

At a news conference at BWI, Magaw said "a fair number" of former screeners will get federal jobs.

But Winch said the TSA has made it difficult for screeners working for private companies to apply online, because it kept the application on its Web site for only a few days.

A TSA spokesman said the agency, which received 5,000 applications for 600 jobs, removed the forms off after it received "a significant pool of applications."

Those who lost their jobs Monday said they may not know for weeks whether they will get federal jobs. Andra Loucks, 19, was one of the laid-off Argenbright workers who is applying for federal work.

"I'm really dedicated," Loucks said., "There were a lot of people who had pride in what they were doing."

The workers who started at BWI yesterday are mobile screeners, who will move from airport to airport, helping to begin the federal program and train the permanent employees.

One of them, James Barnett, 39, of Colorado Springs, retired from the Army last year. He described his new job traveling around airports as an "adventure." "It's exciting. It's challenging," Barnett said.

Also yesterday, the TSA's budget requests were criticized on Capitol Hill. Drawing the harshest criticism was a proposal for paying federally employed armed guards who will be at each airport security checkpoint.

Those officers would earn a minimum of $38,750 a year; after three years on the job, they could make from $55,500, for a checkpoint guard, to $104,875 for a top investigator, Transportation Department spokesman Chet Lunner said.

Those figures were lower than the ones congressional staffers received the night before from the TSA, leading to confusion yesterday about what the agency was requesting.

The agency told Congress on Monday night that it planned to pay three-year guards a minimum of almost $90,000 a year. Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, senior Democrat on the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, was livid about what he called a last-minute change.

"They've got to go back to the drawing board and get us a real proposal based on something other than somebody's overnight, slapdash suggestion of what they need to do to make themselves look less foolish in the press," Obey said.

Richard E. Efford, a Republican staff director on the Appropriations Committee, said he thought the TSA was working to address members' concerns. For instance, the agency promised to hire far fewer investigators at the high end of the pay range.

Copyright Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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