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Thursday, Mar 23, 2017
Crime & Courts

Airport security workers, TSA in the throes of legal battles

For four years, Angnel Blanco was a top employee with the Transportation Security Administration at Orlando International Airport.

She earned accolades as a behavior detection officer, using agency techniques developed by the Israelis to help locate illegal drugs and keep passengers safe. She was named an employee of the year in 2014 and an employee of the month that year as well.

Last year, she saved the life of a passenger who was choking.

Things started to change for Blanco this year, she said, when she requested time off under the Family Medical Leave Act because of lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease she has in which the body’s immune system attacks its own tissues and organs.

Supervisors, expressing concern about medication she was prescribed, fired Blanco in May, telling her she no longer was medically qualified. She got her job back last month after the Tampa-based Whistleblower Law Firm interceded.

That a once-valued employee could fall from favor so quickly raised red flags for her union, the American Federation of Government Employees Local 556. Seeing a possible a pattern among some of its 600 members in the TSA, the union hired the firm after it took on Blanco’s case.

Blanco is one of about two dozen current or former TSA employees the firm is representing in active complaints nationwide, mostly in Florida, President Natalie Khawam said. Many are complaints about discrimination over race, age and medical condition, Khawam said.

Khawam said she is concerned that TSA may be reducing staff, in part, with an eye toward privatizing much of its operations, as was done at two smaller Florida airports.

She also said passengers as well as employees have much at stake in the cases she is pursuing.

“Senior management substantially downsized the number of TSA officers at our airports,” Khawam said. “Not only does that increase the probability of mistakes, but it compromises our national security.”

One example, she said: Managers want to see security lanes open and run with fewer screening officers than established in standard operating procedures. That is exacerbated by what Khawam and union members say is a shortage of female personnel — a security and efficiency problem because only women may perform searches of female passengers.

“They don’t have the amount of people they need,” Blanco said. “I am talking about Orlando, a vacation destination area. Hundreds to thousands of people are coming in per hour, and there are four, five lanes open?”

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Khawam sees a direct correlation between staffing change developments and a recent report by the TSA that its officers failed 95 percent of the time to spot contraband on investigators posing as passengers. The acting TSA administrator was reassigned after the report became public.

“When people are forced to do too much, these failures are going to happen,” Khawam said.

Concerns about staffing and security prompted a complaint to TSA by Pablo Alvarado Jr., a lead transportation safety officer who has been with the TSA since 2002 and is president of the union local that hired Khawam’s firm. The union represents TSA employyes at 12 Florida airports, including Tampa, Orlando and St. Petersburg-Clearwater.

There are nearly 50,000 transportation safety officers nationwide, according to the TSA. Citing privacy issues, the agency declined comment on Blanco’s case. Citing security concerns, it declined to comment about the standard operating procedures for the number of personnel required at security check-in lines. And it did not immediately answer questions about the number of female officers or about staffing levels.

There have been no recent delays reported at either Tampa International Airport or St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport for lack of female personnel, TSA spokeswoman Sari Koshetz said. One delay was reported at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, Koshetz said, but the female passenger involved did make her flight.

In Florida, she said, only the airports in Sarasota and Sanford in Orange County have privatized some security operations, under a program in place since 2004 allowing commercial airports with federal screeners to hire private security personnel.

An application from Punta Gorda also has been approved, but no others are pending, she said.

The program does not include behavior detection officers such as Blanco who still work for TSA, she said.

Nationwide, 21 airports participate in the program.

Koshetz defended TSA’s ability to adjust “to maintain a robust security regiment,” noting that officers screen 2 million passengers and more than 4 million bags for explosives every day.

“Throughout our existence, we have been aware of the evolving threat and adapted our policies and procedures accordingly,” she said. “We employ a layered approach to security.”

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Union local President Alvarado, who also works in Orlando, said the TSA’s airport management regularly violates the standard operating procedures for the number of personnel on check-in lines.

On Feb. 2, he filed an incident report over one of those situations, claiming “improper lane staffing.”

In his report, Alvarado said that shortly before 7 p.m. Feb. 2, he was taken off his assigned post and told to open a new check-in lane. He states that he logged on to the X-ray machine and waited for other officers as required under standard operating procedures to run a security line.

Those officers, Alvarado said, never showed up. When a supervisor arrived and told him to run the X-ray machine without additional officers, Alvarado refused, saying he was waiting for “proper staffing.” He continued to refuse to run the X-ray machine because of what he said was a lack of sufficient personnel.

“As a lead, an officer and a union official,” he wrote, “I have the duty to stop and report all violations.”

In an interview, Alvarado said standard operating procedures call for five officers on a lane — one to check tickets, one to run the X-ray machine, one to run the metal detector or scanner, one checking baggage and one telling passengers how to prepare for the security process, like taking off belts and shoes.

TSA spokeswoman Koshetz said that because Alvarado has retained Khawam, she cannot comment on his allegations.

Another TSA officer who was fired recently, Zorayda Moreno, said check-in lines at Tampa International Airport also are routinely opened without enough personnel.

“Every time we are really busy, they open a line with just the X-ray operator and a person at the metal detector,” Moreno said. “If they need to check something, they call from another line. Even supervisors take over.”

The shortage “represents a security issue because we don’t have enough people, so we don’t have the same quality time to check backs or to be more vigilant with passengers,” she said.

The shortage is especially prevalent among female officers, Moreno said.

“We are always short on females. That’s a problem because it slows down the process.”

Moreno, who worked 13 years with TSA and once was lauded for finding drugs on a woman in a wheelchair at the Tampa airport, was fired last month after the TSA said she failed proficiency tests twice in May.

The first time, according to TSA, she missed five items in a pat-down test. After being given instructions on what she missed, she failed the test again.

Moreno disputes failing the first time. She, too, is represented by Khawam.

The TSA on Wednesday denied Khawam’s request that officials turn over video from the test. The videos, according to the TSA, are not used in the test evaluation process.

The agency upheld the termination.

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Khawam said the case of TSA officer Blanco raises questions about TSA’s motives.

Blanco received several kudos from supervisors, including a customer service award on Jan. 30 and performance awards on Feb. 4 and March 21.

In February, Blanco’s doctor, Nicole Gill-Duncan, submitted a request for time off under the Family Medical Leave Act as a precaution over Blanco’s lupus. A few weeks later, she showed up at her job wearing a headband because of hair loss associated with her condition. She was sent home for “being out of uniform,” Blanco said.

She was taking medicine, including Restoril, prescribed to help improve her sleep. In a memo to TSA medical case review officer Scott Lamberson, Blanco’s doctor said “no restrictions or limitations are needed” as the result of Blanco’s medical condition.

Yet on May 11, Blanco was notified that she was “not medically qualified” for her position because she was prescribed the Restoril. Blanco, who maintains she took the drug just once and didn’t like it, hired Khawam, who filed an appeal.

On June 17, Derek DePietro, assistant federal security director for screening at Orlando International Airport, notified Blanco he was withdrawing her proposed removal.

“Officers are in constant fear of losing their jobs because they don’t know if senior management will target them for a disease they have or for taking medication their doctor prescribed them,” Khawam said.

Khawam, who is seeking back pay for the time Blanco lost, said since Blanco returned to work she has received bonuses and accolades from managers.

haltman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-8147

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