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Union: Screening changes leave O’Hare more vulnerable

Transportation Security Administration employees and supporters at a rally outside O'Hare Airport in Chicago on Monday, July 25, 2016. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

Since O’Hare Airport’s May meltdown, many security screeners have been redeployed from checking employees to checking passengers, leaving O’Hare more “vulnerable” to an “insider threat,” union employees charged Monday.

“Thousands” of O’Hare workers are entering the airport through a back door each day, without any screening, argued Michael Shepski-Lindsted, a Transportation Security Administration worker at O’Hare. He also is a member of the executive board of Local 777 of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union local that represents Illinois and Wisconsin TSA workers.

Many O’Hare employees park on the airfield and are taken by bus to a back door of O’Hare, Shepski-Lindsted said during a TSA employee rally Monday outside O’Hare. Before O’Hare’s May fiasco, in which passengers waited up to three hours to get through security screening lines, such “back-door” employees were randomly checked, he said.

But after the meltdown, TSA officials redeployed “a large number” of the O’Hare screeners from checking employees to checking passengers to reduce passenger wait times in security lines, Shepski-Lindsted said.

Michael Shepski-Lindsted, a Transportation Security Administration worker at O’Hare and a member of the executive board of Local 777 of the American Federation of Government Employees, speaks during a rally by Transportation Security officers on Monday. |
Michael Shepski-Lindsted, a Transportation Security Administration worker at O’Hare and a member of the executive board of Local 777 of the American Federation of Government Employees, speaks during a rally by Transportation Security officers on Monday. | Tim Boyle/For the Sun-Times

That caused a 90 percent decrease in screenings of “back door” employees, including plane mechanics, baggage handlers and concession workers, he estimated.

As a result, Shepski-Lindsted said, “O’Hare is absolutely more vulnerable to any insider threat.”

TSA spokesman Michael McCarthy said the TSA never screened 100 percent of O’Hare employees and still does random screening, as well as subjecting them to “rigorous background checks,” terrorist watchlist vetting, and biometric readers to verify their identification.

McCarthy said he could not reveal whether O’Hare employee screeners have been diverted to passenger screenings. More TSA screeners and bomb-sniffing canine units have been deployed to O’Hare, greatly reducing waiting lines.

The consensus of the Aviation Security Advisory Council has been that while physical screening of employees is one way to deter terrorist activity, 100 percent physical screening is not the only solution, McCarthy noted. The council contends that 100 percent screening “would constitute an ineffective use of resources with limited security value.”

Chicago Department of Aviation spokesman Owen Kilmer said: “The safety and security of passengers and employees is the Chicago Department of Aviation’s top priority. We work closely with our law enforcement partners to provide a layered security approach.”

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger admitted in April that only three airports screen 100 percent of employees regularly. Judicial Watch has identified those airports as Atlanta, Miami and Orlando.

In 2014, Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson Airport was the alleged site of a gun-smuggling operation in which an airline employee reportedly helped load more than a hundred guns, including two assault rifles, on multiple flights between Atlanta and New York City.

In addition, last year, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security identified more than 70 employees at nearly 40 U.S. airports who had been flagged for links to terrorism, according to some reports. However, TSA officials have contended there is no evidence that those employees are on the terrorist watch list.

About two dozen TSA employees chanted and picketed outside O’Hare on Monday. They contend that TSA should hire 6,000 more employees — including more employee screeners at O’Hare — by the end of September. TSA plans to hire only 600 more employees by that time.

TSA employees are bailing out of the agency because of poor working conditions, causing a turnover of 100 Transportation Security Officers a week, said Alan Jackimowicz, executive vice president of TSA Council 100, which represents American Federation of Government Employees locals across the country.

The current Transportation Security Officer starting salary of $15.13 an hour is totally inadequate, and 25 percent of them do not get annual raises or any bonuses, Jackimowicz said.

Jackimowicz contended that the looser screening of some employees at O’Hare poses “a large danger.” He noted that employees have been caught at other airports bringing in both guns and drugs.

“If we don’t hire more officers, we’ll have employees walking in the back door,” unchecked, Jackimowicz said.

TSA loses about 7 percent of its full-time employees annually, McCarthy said.