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Security rules still seem foggy to port workers

(The following article by Brad Hem was posted on the Houston Chronicle website on January 11.)

HOUSTON -- Some truckers, railroad workers, longshoremen and others whose jobs take them to the Port of Houston are awaiting new federal security rules restricting access to secure port areas with a mix of confusion and irritation.

The Transportation Security Administration released the rules last week providing more detail about how they will work. It plans to start implementing the requirements in March, but officials there won't say where they will start.

The estimated 750,000 workers with access to the nation's ports will need to undergo background and immigration status checks and pay up to $159 for biometric identification cards with their photos and fingerprints embedded in them, according to the new rules.

More than two years after Congress approved the program, and less than two months before it is supposed to begin taking effect, there are still questions about how it will work, who needs to participate when, and who will pay for the cards.

Shipping officials and workers said they have struggled to get information from the Department of Homeland Security. In some cases the information is available; the groups just need to search it out.

TSA officials said concerns would be addressed in the next two months before the program starts.

The port security rules were based on the comments by many people who will be affected, Harmon said. The agency also plans to educate local groups before implementing the rules, she said.

Cost and inconvenience

Some port-related workers said they don't like the program because of the cost for the ID cards. Others said they hadn't even heard of the program.

The cost and inconvenience bothers independent truck driver Allen Jamison, he said before taking his load through a Port of Houston terminal gate at Barbours Cut on Friday.

"What do they want us to do — starve to death? We've got kids to feed."

Jamison owns his own truck, so he'll have to foot the bill for the card.

Representatives for the port authority and some companies whose employees work at the port said they are considering paying for the cards, but those decisions have not been made.

U.S. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, a Houston Democrat who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, said the panel will attempt to iron out the kinks before March. She urged port-related workers, businesses and industry groups to be patient in the meantime.

Could be first

Houston would seem likely to be one of the first ports to see the changes.
The TSA plans to start with ports with the highest cargo levels, most workers and most potentially hazardous cargo.

But a TSA spokesman said that has not been determined.

The question of how to phase in the program — which is supposed to cover all the country's port-related workers within 18 months — will be answered by a private contractor that has yet to be chosen, a TSA spokesman said.

Port of Houston Authority officials don't know when the program will start here, port authority spokeswoman Argentina James said.

Les Findeisen, policy director at the Texas Motor Transportation Association, said his group still has questions. Some commercial truck drivers already pay more than $100 for hazardous materials endorsements that require criminal background checks, and he doesn't understand why those drivers would have to pay for another check.

"Are they duplicating their efforts and charging the individuals for it?" he asked.
The answers to some of his questions are out there.

No second check

They won't have to undergo a second check, TSA spokeswoman Carrie Harmon said, but they will have to enroll in the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program and provide fingerprints that will be embedded in the cards. Drivers who already have the hazmat endorsement will get a discount on the card, but it will still cost them between $107 and $127, Harmon said.

Not every driver complains about the program.

"It's money, but I want to make sure everybody that's coming in here is supposed to be coming in here," truck driver Robert McCarley said. "I want to make sure everything is secure."

Tom Isbell, president of the International Longshoremen's Association's Houston-based Local 24, said the cost of the cards is a problem for his members.

"My guys aren't a terrorist threat," he said. "All I've got is a bunch of guys trying to feed their families and better their lives. When they have to pay for those cards, they'll be upset. No doubt about that. We're going to try to get the employers to pay for it."

High turnover among workers who load and unload containers also could be an obstacle, Isbell predicted.

His local has about 1,100 workers at any one time, but there were a total of 3,000 workers last year.

The port employs about 500 workers itself, but there are thousands of other workers who work for companies or are self-employed.

For example about 3,500 truck drivers enter the port each month, but only about a quarter of them make return trips, according to the port authority. The other 75 percent would need the ID card even if they only deliver or pick up at the port once a month, according to the TSA.

Mark Buese, spokesman for the barge operator Kirby Corp., said his company is concerned that it will take from 10 to 30 days for the TSA to process a worker's background check and issue their ID card.

"You can't hire somebody and wait 10 to 30 days for them to start work," he said.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

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