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New Airport Screener Jobs Going Mostly to Whites

Diversity: Before the 9/11 attacks, minorities were a majority of the work force. Citizenship rule, test are questioned.

September 24, 2002|RICARDO ALONSO-ZALDIVAR and JENNIFER OLDHAM | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — The federal takeover of aviation security is spurring a demographic shift at airports around the country, as thousands of screener jobs in which minorities were heavily represented increasingly appear to be going to whites.

Statistics from the Transportation Security Administration indicate that Latinos and Asian Americans are finding it particularly difficult to land the new, higher-paying federal screener positions. As of mid-September, a majority of the 21,983 new hires were white.

At issue are a citizenship requirement for federal screeners and a preemployment test that the current workers allege is discriminatory.

The TSA "is not as diverse as my expectation was," said Rep. Ed Pastor (D-Ariz.), a member of the House panel that oversees aviation security funding. "They need to look at their hiring practices and say, 'We're coming up short.' "

The agency, however, says it is pleased with its efforts to hire minorities. "We're right on target, and in some cases better," spokeswoman Heather Rosenker said. She defended the preemployment test as an objective assessment developed by experts in the personnel field.

The TSA has yet to take over security screening at Los Angeles International Airport, where minorities account for an estimated 98% of the security screeners. All are employees of private companies. African Americans make up about half the work force; Latinos, 20%; Asians, 14%; and Africans, 14%, according to the Service Employees International Union, which represents the workers.

The emerging TSA security force looks substantially different. Federal screeners are gradually replacing private security employees in a transition that is supposed to be completed by Nov. 19.

Nationally, whites account for 61% of the federal screeners, while 21% are black, 10% Latino, 2% Asian and 1% American Indian, according to TSA statistics. This month at the St. Louis airport, African American screeners shut down checkpoints for 10 minutes to draw attention to their complaints that they were being left out of the new federal jobs.

The TSA has also encountered problems hiring female screeners. It initially set a goal that half the workers would be women, in order to address reported abuses by male screeners searching female passengers. Yet only 31% of the new hires are women.

There are no figures on the ethnicity of screeners before the Sept. 11 attacks, but a former Federal Aviation Administration security chief said the work force was overwhelmingly made up of minorities.

"I was in a lot of airports, and it sure seemed that way to me," said Cathal Flynn, who headed the FAA security branch from 1993 to 2000. "I remember one of the senior managers in the FAA saying, 'I'll know those are good jobs when I see white guys working in them.' He himself was black."

SEIU researcher Robert Masciola agreed. "At the top 100 airports, which employed 80% of the screeners, I would definitely say it was a majority-minority work force," said Masciola, who assisted in the union drive to organize the workers at eight of the nation's largest airports.

The new TSA jobs pay $23,600 to $35,400 a year, plus benefits. The private security screener jobs often paid minimum wage.

"This is not the same job," said Elizabeth Kolmstetter, a TSA official who oversees training standards for the new work force. "The job screeners knew previously is not the same job TSA is putting out there. We need a work force that can keep up with change."

Many of the job requirements were set by Congress and cannot be changed by the TSA, said Rosenker, the spokeswoman.

For many Latinos and Asians, a key barrier to TSA employment is that Congress required the agency to recruit only U.S. citizens. Other federal agencies--including the Defense Department--do not have to apply such sweeping citizenship rules. About 31,000 noncitizens are on active duty in the armed forces, enough for a couple of Army divisions. Legally, none of them could be a federal airport screener. An amendment pending in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), would waive the citizenship requirement for current screeners who are permanent U.S. residents.

Another barrier, say union officials at LAX, is a battery of preemployment tests that includes a ninth-grade-level English exam.

Of 120 LAX screeners who recently volunteered to take a practice English test, all flunked. Union organizers said they're concerned about the relevance of the exam to a screener's job.

"What's getting a lot of people is the diction, which is very subjective," said Javier Gonzalez, an SEIU organizer. "This is currently predominantly a people-of-color industry."

National civil rights organizations complain that the TSA has not done enough to reach out to minorities.

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