Problems plague worker ID program

Published 20 May 2008

The TWIC program is being rolled out, but long lines at enrollment centers, jammed phones, redundant background checks, and paperwork slow the process down

TWIC, the program DHS launched to tighten port security by issuing high-tech identification cards to more than a million workers who work in U.S. ports or who visit them frequently, is riddled with problems as it is being implemented, according to barge company owners, union chiefs, and some members of Congress. USA Today’s Mimi Hall writes that the program was ordered by Congress in 2002 amid fears that terrorists would try to sneak weapons and operatives into the country through its seaports. People such as truckers, dock workers, and deck hands are required to submit to fingerprinting and background checks before they are issued a new ID allowing them access to the ships, cargo containers, docks, and equipment used to move millions of tons of cargo each year. Workers trying to sign up for the cards face jammed phone lines, crowded enrollment centers, redundant background checks, and more as they try to navigate the program, critics say. Maurine Fanguy, the chief of the identification program, says the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) vastly underestimated the number of workers who would need cards. House Homeland Security Committee chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Mississippi), decried the TSA’s “continued bureaucratic missteps” in implementing the program. This month, DHS announced an extension of the 25 September 2008 compliance date to 15 April 2009 — the latest in a series of delays. Fanguy defended the government’s delays. “No one is doing a biometric program of this scale and complexity,” she said.

To get a card, workers can pre-enroll online, but they must visit a center to register, pay $132.50 and then return to pick up their cards. In the first six months of the program, 353,187 workers pre-enrolled, and nearly 90,000 cards were issued. Fanguy said the agency estimated 850,000 workers would enroll but now believes that number is closer to 1.2 million. Criticism and reports of problems are escalating. Among them:

  • Most truckers already are subjected to background checks to get licenses to carry hazardous materials, and most deckhands on barges and towboats undergo them to get licenses from the Coast Guard. “It raises questions about why it’s necessary,” Teamsters Port Division Director Chuck Mack says
  • Long lines at enrollment centers, jammed telephone help lines, and lost enrollment forms. “This has been a real nightmare,” said Steve Golding of Golding Barge Line in Vicksburg, Mississippi. He says only five of his seventy-five employees, most of whom applied months ago, have gotten a card back. The slow pace is widespread: At the Port of New York/New Jersey, 13,000 of 125,000 workers have a card.
  • Incomplete government criminal databases. Nearly 5,000 people have received initial disqualification letters because of arrest records or legal problems, according to the TSA. More than 2,000 have appealed.

Laura Moskowitz of the National Employment Law Project says this is because government databases often are not updated when a person who has been arrested is cleared. “The burden is on the worker to prove” he should qualify for a card, she said. “And it’s not easy to navigate the system.”