Scorecard on the Post-9/11 Port Worker Background Checks

Shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, Congress imposed significant new background checks on the 1.5 million workers employed in the nation’s ports. After four years of implementation delays, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) process of screening for the Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) began in earnest late in 2007.

By April 2009, all workers were required by TSA to have their TWIC cards to enter the ports and continue working. Despite this hard and fast deadline, TSA failed to issue TWIC cards for large numbers of workers who filed timely applications. Indeed, thousands of workers, largely African American and Latino men, waited an average of seven months — unable to work and support their families in the midst of a devastating recession — while their petitions for review languished at TSA.

While these and other TSA implementation issues have plagued the TWIC program, there have also been some remarkable successes that speak to the critical importance of the worker protections that were built into the legislation. Most importantly, the law established a special process allowing workers to keep their jobs when they can demonstrate to TSA that they have been rehabilitated and do not pose a terrorism security risk, even if they have a disqualifying felony offense. Similarly, the law allows workers to correct the inaccurate information that is routinely generated by the FBI’s criminal background check system and as part of immigration status determinations. Almost 100 percent of these TWIC challenges were decided in favor of the workers by TSA. Therefore, these model worker protections provide a lifeline to continued employment, especially for workers of color.

This report documents both the failings and accomplishments of the TWIC program’s critical worker protections. The findings are based primarily on data collected by the National Employment Law Project (NELP) on hundreds of TWIC applicants NELP represented through the TWIC review process. No such data has been produced by TSA. Thus, this was the first evaluation of the TWIC program’s procedures that were created to protect the rights of workers and ensure the integrity of the TWIC security threat assessment.

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About the Authors

Maurice Emsellem

Fair Chance Program Director, National Employment Law Project