After the 9/11 terrorists attacks, media reports about the lack of security at ports in the US began to appear. Congress reacted by passing the Maritime Transportation Security Act. The act required the US Department of Homeland Security to create a nationwide database of port workers including longshoremen, long- and short-haul truck drivers, seafarers, and others and issue a national identification card, or Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC), to those in the database. The task of creating the database and issuing TWICs eventually fell to the Transportation Security Administration.
Work on the TWIC project began eight years ago, but a recent report by the US General Accountability Office (GAO) suggests that the TWIC program has not made our ports more secure, and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union says that TWIC has created hardships and frustrations for port workers.
From its beginning in 2007, TWIC has caused problems affecting the livelihoods of many workers. Workers had to submit an application to get a TWIC. Based on this information, TSA either issued or denied a TWIC. When a TWIC was denied, workers had to the opportunity to appeal and provide more information to support their appeal.
According to Robert McEllrath, international president of ILWU, tens of thousands of workers received letters from TSA seeking more information before their applications could be approved. In some cases, TSA was seeking information about past criminal convictions that may or may not have kept applicants from getting a TWIC.
When applicants provided the requested information, TSA was supposed to process the appeal within 30 days. But it took TSA an average of 69 days to process appeals. While TSA processed the appeals, workers couldn’t work. “The result was that thousands of workers were left unemployed, unable to make house and car payments, or attend to their family needs,” McEllrath said.
According to the National Employment Law Project, it took TSA more than a year to process information provided by one of their clients and more than nine months to process information provided by another. “While they waited, their families’ hardships (grew) by the day,” said NELP attorney Laura Moskowitz in a letter to Congress.
McEllrath said that these hardships fell hardest on African-American and Latino workers. ” On average, African-Americans waited one month more than their white counterparts, which translated to one month more in lost wages. Latinos on average waited two months longer,” McEllrath said.
And there were other problems. John A.C. Cartner, a maritime attorney, reports that workers were sometimes denied a TWIC because of errors in the database. For example, the database couldn’t recognize hyphenated last names or names that included two middle names.
When TWIC was implemented, the TWIC contractor, Lockheed Martin, set up a call center to help workers with applications. But the call center was under staffed, and many workers hung up without getting answers. A spokesperson for TSA confirmed that the average wait time for a call to be answered was 20 minutes and that 70 percent of the callers hung up after waiting eight minutes.
“I have been informed that workers are being asked to stay on hold for hours at a time to receive information that is often incorrect and misleading,” wrote Rep Bennie Thompson, former chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security. The call centers “have proven to be yet another poorly designed and managed program that is negatively impacting those individuals who comprise the valuable eyes and ears of our nation’s transportation system.”
The problems that TWIC caused workers aren’t its only problems. TWIC hasn’t proved effective at improving port security. According to the GAO, TWIC is less effective at providing port security than previous efforts by local port management. GAO investigators had no trouble obtaining TWICs using false information or gaining access to ports using counterfeit TWICs.
And there may be more problems to come. The government has spent about $500 million on a card reader system that is supposed to verify whether the person with the card is the person identified on the card. That project remains behind schedule, and it could be as late a 2014 before it is fully implemented.
“We won’t prevent our ports from being used for terrorism by requiring port workers to undergo extensive screening,” McEllrath said. “Containers enter the port facilities sealed and leave sealed. Port workers have no access to the contents; port workers just move the sealed containers from one place to another. It’s difficult to imagine what a port worker could do to promote an act of terrorism in the port if he or she was inclined.
“In November 2001, there was a desire to do something — anything — to prevent those horrific events of 9/11 from recurring. Today, it is clear that TWIC is not the answer. Congress and the Administration should follow the GAO’s recommendations and take a hard look at this program before continuing any further.”