Between hauls to and from the Oakland port, truck driver Ernest Johnson sits on hold waiting to find out whether stealing something from a K-Mart eight years ago might now cost him his job. Finding employment was hard for Johnson, who sought work as a trucker after spending two years in state prison. Now he wonders if a new homeland security regulation designed to deny port access to anyone deemed a security threat might prevent him from keeping the job he finally landed.
“If I can’t drive trucks,” Johnson asks, “what’s left?”
A criminal past could stand in the way of drivers like Johnson obtaining a Transportation Workers Identification Credential, the federal ID card that will be required by mid-November for anyone who wants unescorted access to “secure” areas in the nation’s maritime ports. Each port will define what it considers secure based on Coast Guard guidelines. That could mean parts of vessels, berths where ships dock, and areas where ship cargo is left for drivers.
Federal rules include a laundry list of past offenses that will temporarily or permanently disqualify workers from receiving the card. Espionage and treason mean no card ever. Convictions such as unlawful possession of a firearm, or possession of an illegal substance, will mean interim disqualification. Immigrants without legal work status also do not qualify.
It is unclear how many truckers, longshoremen, and vendors won’t be liable for the ID cards because of past criminal records. Some say 10 percent of the entire trucking workforce. Others have heard that as many as half the drivers in Oakland may have problems.
The port has traditionally been a place for immigrants and people with criminal backgrounds to find legitimate work. For example, of the twelve truckers who work alongside Johnson at AB Trucking, only three don’t have criminal backgrounds. “Historically, any man or woman who wanted to work on the waterfront could do it,” said Clarence Thomas, campaign coordinator for the Local 10 division of the International Longshore & Warehouse Union. That included convicted murderers and robbers, all of whom who had served their time in prison. “Now they can say, ‘We don’t care if you’ve been a productive worker for the last four or five years. The fact that you’ve committed a crime, we get a second bite of the apple.'”
Registration begins in Oakland in mid-November. Applicants must bring various forms of documentation and submit fingerprint and thumbprint information. Ten to thirty days later, if nothing in their background check disqualifies them, they will get their ID card. Workers can expedite the process by pre-enrolling online. All 750,000 of the US port workers expected to need the card should be enrolled by next September.
“It’s going to improve the scrutiny of the workforce and the integrity of the workforce,” said Mike O’Brien, head of security for the Port of Oakland’s maritime operations. “It will weed out any bad apples,” agreed Bob Salter, general manager of Shippers Transport Express, where three television cameras monitor the comings and goings of the shipping yard.
Reaching out to drivers, many of whom are independent owners and operators, is a challenge for the Transportation Security Agency. Officials say extensive education efforts are underway to guarantee that anyone required to get the card will know when and how to apply for the card. The TSA has held at least two information sessions within the last week. The agency also has a web site explaining the card, and workers can call a toll-free number for information.
But explanations given to drivers like Johnson have left many confused, if they have heard about it at all. Johnson, who was sent to state prison for the K-Mart incident and another burglary, called the number last week at the request of a reporter.
“Are you going to constantly pay for your crime that you did after you done served your time or constantly get penalized for it for the rest of your life?” Johnson asked. “I don’t understand what the big deal is. We’re not terrorists. Why would we want to blow up our money?”
Johnson thumbed through the pages of literature he had printed out from his bosses’ computer. He paused when he read the price of his contribution to national security: $132.50, something every applicant will have to pay to get their card. Drivers who already have comparable licenses approved by the TSA — which Johnson does not — pay only $105. When the card expires after five years, workers must pay replacement fees again.
Johnson asked the official for more information about the crimes that would prevent him from qualifying for the card. Put on hold, he continued waiting, knowing he’d also spend much of the afternoon waiting again in a long line at the entrance to one of the port terminals, eating his lunch inside his truck cab because it’s the only time he can catch a break.
Finally, the operator returned with an answer. She read the list of “disqualifying” crimes. Johnson nodded, asked a few questions, thanked the operator, and hung up. “I will pretty much be all right,” he said. His formal charge had been for grand theft, something not on the agency’s list.
But he wasn’t so sure about the rest of his coworkers and fellow drivers, though. “A lot of people are going to be screwed with this,” Johnson said.
Erik Gaines, a port truck driver who works alongside Johnson, found work in the trucking industry after he was referred there by a drug rehabilitation program. Gaines was convicted of possession of a controlled substance in 1989. After a reporter explained to him the sometime-confusing rules, he concluded that he will probably be okay since his drug offenses occurred so long ago. Workers who have one of the “interim disqualifying crimes” on their rap sheet cannot have been convicted within seven years, or served time within five years, of when they apply for the card. Applicants also can be denied if they were jailed for violating parole on one of the listed offenses, said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser. All applicants can opt to file an appeal and demonstrate why they should get the card, he said.
But most drivers don’t know how to determine their status in the first place, Gaines said. Most did not even know the card was coming. He had not yet entered the trucking industry when Congress passed the Maritime Transportation Security Act in 2002, which made the ID a requirement.
“I wasn’t keeping up with no politics,” Gaines said. “All I know is I wanted to drive trucks.”
Equally difficult to gauge is the effect the card will have on port workers who lack legal work status. English is not the first language for many drivers. Everyone says they have their papers, but no one keeps accurate numbers about how many illegal immigrants may slip under the port’s radar.
Bill Aboudi, the owner and manger of AB Trucking, said employees must show him proof of their work status when they are first hired. But he admits that he doesn’t keep track of when those papers need to be renewed. He said he knows even less about the independent owner-operator truck drivers who work with him on a contract basis.
Aboudi still remembers the night one of his drivers, an Argentinean, called to say that immigration officials were taking him away. Aboudi blurted that they must have made a mistake, because he had all of his legal papers at the office. “No, Bill,” said the driver, “you only think you have my papers.”
At most entry ports, drivers need only flash a license from their cab window, according to Bob Blanchet, the port division representative for the International Brotherhood of Teamsters. “You could just flash a driver’s license, or not flash anything at all,” said Susan Monteverde, vice president of government relations for the American Association of Port Authorities.
That was once a problem at the Union Pacific rail yard on the port’s fringes, where UP police and railroad officials would observe drivers trading licenses before approaching the gates to drop off or pick up loads, according to Jeff Smith Jr., manager of intermodal terminal operations at Union Pacific.
But all that changed a year ago, when the company switched to a biometric system that required drivers to submit fingerprint information to verify themselves every time they came in and out of the rail yard. They place their two left fingers on a biometric scan at the gate. A voice says, “Hello,” and then asks the driver’s name. If the fingerprint doesn’t match registered information for each driver’s license number, the trucker is rejected.
Federal officials say they hope the new ID cards will create the same uniformity, based on similar biometric criteria but using information from all ten fingerprints instead of just a pair, TSA spokesman Kayser said. But there’s still one problem: no readers are in place yet. That’s because ports are not required to install the card readers under the Maritime Transportation Security Act. Officials with the US Coast Guard are still testing which systems work, Kayser said. Eventually, officials hope to amend the law in order to make card readers required, said Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela Hirsch.
For now, Aboudi of AB Trucking said he has no plans to let go of his employees with criminal backgrounds. Most likely, he said, they will figure another way around the problem and configure a new system, like picking up containers from another driver once they are outside the secure areas of the port. “What do you tell them?” asked Aboudi. “‘We might have to fire you?'”