Former SFO security goes job hunting

By Karen Gaudette
Saturday October 12, 2002

SAN FRANCISCO — Federal officials, union leaders and the city of San Francisco hope to match hundreds of soon-to-be displaced airport screeners with jobs elsewhere in the security industry. 

Officials with San Francisco International Airport and the federal Transportation Security Administration said at a news conference Friday that the program could set an example for other airports staffed with large numbers of workers who are not U.S. citizens. 

“We all know how dedicated and hard-working (screeners) are,” said Edward Gomez, federal security director at SFO. “They are talent waiting to be tapped.” 

Under the federal Transportation Security Act of 2001, all passenger screeners at the nation’s airports must have U.S. citizenship, pass a series of skills tests and have been trained by the TSA by Nov. 19. All baggage screeners must meet the same criteria by year’s end. 

Of the nearly 1,500 passenger and baggage screeners at SFO, up to half lack citizenship and will be displaced, Gomez said. Those who already are U.S. citizens must pass the same tests as new applicants to qualify for re-hiring. 

To help workers through the transition, Local 790 of the Service Employees International Union is holding job training classes. Airport officials and San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown have set up job fairs to help connect outgoing screeners with security firms including Allied and Guardsmark. 

And airport officials are tracking a group of about 70 screeners who are on the cusp of citizenship to make sure they apply for jobs. 

Regardless, times are stressful for screeners, especially those who hail from overseas, said Erlinda Valencia, a screener and shop steward for Local 790 of the SEIU. 

San Francisco is one of five airports nationwide — including Kansas City International, Greater Rochester (N.Y.) International Airport, Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Airport and Tupelo (Miss.) Airport — participating in a two-year federal pilot program allowing hiring of private firms to provide passenger and baggage screening. 

The remaining 424 commercial airports will continue to be staffed by federalized screeners trained and deployed by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration. 

SFO has contracted with Illinois-based Covenant Aviation Security to handle screening duties. Under the arrangement, Covenant has guaranteed all qualified screeners a job, even if that means overstaffing the airport, said Michael T. Irwin, deputy federal security director at SFO. 

But Valencia, who has held her job at the airport for more than 15 years, said she’s waiting to see how the new company runs things before she decides whether to trust the promises. 

“I know nothing about how this company treats employees, so it remains to be seen,” she said at the airport Friday, adding that regardless she was glad to hear of Covenant’s efforts to retain as many former screeners as possible. 

Irwin said Covenant, which won a $71 million one-year contract to run security at both SFO and Tupelo, impressed SFO officials with its commitment to security and its plans to have Seattle-based department store chain Nordstrom pass along its customer service skills to its employees.