Closer scrutiny set at ports

ID cards delayed

local spot-checks are planned

October 31, 2007|By Laura McCandlish | Laura McCandlish,SUN REPORTER

Some 20,000 longshoremen, contractors and other people who work at the Helen Delich Bentley Port of Baltimore will finally be subjected to more thorough background checks starting in late November under a new, long-delayed federal security program.

But procedures won't change at the port overnight. It will be months before the Transportation Worker Identification Credential, or TWIC, cards are issued and required for access to secure areas of port terminals.

At least 1 million workers could eventually be required to get and use the ID cards, as the Transportation Security Administration phases in enrollment at the nation's 361 ports through September 2008.

Though TWIC enrollment began at the port of Wilmington in Delaware in mid-October, the Coast Guard has yet to test electronic readers for the cards. The Coast Guard will only perform spot-checks until those devices, designed to read fingerprints embedded in the cards, are available.

Tests of the card readers are to begin next year at selected ports including the Watermark Cruise terminal in Annapolis.

"We can't just make them use it until we have the specifications, until we know we have readers," said Cmdr. Peter W. Gautier, the Coast Guard's program officer for the TWIC program.

A House of Representatives committee is to take up the issue in a hearing today on "Homeland Security Failures: TWIC Examined." A 2002 federal law required the identification system for all airport, port, rail and pipeline workers but the cards for port workers are more than three years overdue.

Already checked against terrorist watch lists, port workers now face a more thorough vetting that probes for any criminal history.

Longshoremen and truck drivers fear that the criminal background and immigration status checks required for the new security clearance will thin their ranks.

"People are worried they'll get laid off," said Kermit Bowling, president of Baltimore's ILA Local 333, which represents about 1,200 Longshoremen. "We hear so many horror stories."

The AFL-CIO's Transportation Trades Department, which represents Longshoremen and drivers, has lobbied for an appeals process to protect those who are denied a TWIC card but represent no terrorism risk, said Larry Willis, general counsel for the department.

"The program shouldn't deny a TWIC, and the ability to go to work, to someone who has a background criminal offense that has absolutely nothing to do with security," Willis said.

About half the truck drivers who service the country's ports nationally are believed to be undocumented workers, said Todd Spencer, executive vice president of the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, which represents about 157,000 drivers. Undocumented immigrants will not qualify for TWIC cards.

"That should have been the first focus," Spencer said.

The TWIC card will cost the longshoremen, contractors and managers required to have them about $130. Each card is good for five years.

Bowling, of the Longshoremen's union, said the shipping companies or government should subsidize that cost for their workers.

"Most of the cards we've got, we only had to pay for a replacement," Bowling said. "All the employers should pitch in."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.