Inspectorsphased out just in time for summer rush

Published on Thu, May 27, 2004 by eg Olson

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Inspectors phased out just in time for summer rush

By Meg Olson

Management of local ports of entry say a move to phase out some inspectors who have been on the job for years and replace them with new inspectors is the best use of agency resources to get a flexible qualified workforce at the border. The union representing those inspectors decried the move as a cost-cutting measure that is replacing valuable experience with green talent.

“You can call us one face at the border now but the truth has been that the new training has not been sufficient for immigration inspectors to do customs work and for customs to do immigration work. The new officers coming out of 71 days of training are not really well equipped to do either,” said Charles Showalter, vice-president at large of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents 18,000 inspectors who previously worked for the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). In March those inspectors merged with inspectors from the U.S. Customs Service and agriculture inspectors to become one agency under the Department of Homeland Security – the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

While unions representing the inspectors sort out who will represent the inspectors under the new single agency, CBP spokesman Mike Milne said the agency is trying to make the best use of funds that have allowed them to increase the number of full-time inspectors in the Seattle district, which includes Whatcom County border crossings, from less than 800 to more then 1,700. “Two years ago we had 9/11 and congress authorized double the amount of people on the line,” he said. “That changes our need to use part-time employees.”

Those part time employees are former INS inspectors who, though they were officially classed as “other than full-time” because that agency was chronically short of funding for full-time positions, still worked 40 or more hours a week and may have been in that capacity for decades. “Some of them have been working in a full-time capacity for a long time,” Milne admitted. He said approximately 50 of the Seattle district’s inspectors fall into that category and union sources say 20 of them are in Whatcom County.

On Friday those inspectors will go from full-time employment to “intermittent”status. “That means they’re pretty much done,” Showalter said. “They’ll lose their income, their benefits, their retirement.” He said the public was losing sharp eyes at the border and it compromised security. “These officers are dedicated, trained, experienced and seasoned officers being removed for a new CBP hire. Some of them have spent 20 years at that land border and they have seen it all.” He said the only motive he could see for the move was money. “It’s cheaper to hire a brand new officer off the street,” he said. “I can’t prove that’s the intent of the port director but that’s one answer.”

Milne said the inspectors weren’t losing their jobs, they just weren’t being guaranteed hours of work unless they were called in. For example the two “other than full-time” inspectors at Point Roberts will have their hours reduced from 80 in a two week period to 64, and a new full-time inspector will be assigned to that post in September.
Milne said it wasn’t about dollars but about efficiency and flexibility in the newly agglomerated agency, still trying to combine the practices of a dozen federal agencies under one umbrella. “We are trying to staff the border with the best people we can.” he said. “We have experienced officers and we have new officers.” He added the changes going into effect May 28 were not anticipated to increase delay times at the borders.

Milne would not speculate as to why the inspectors in question had ended up in the over 800 full-time positions created within the Seattle district over the past two years – did they not apply or did they not get selected? “If and when the next vacancies come up they’re welcome to apply,” he said. Showalter said the union would continue to pressure management to move these inspectors in limbo into permanent positions, perhaps accepting their experience on the job in lieu of the 71 days of training given a new hire. “Lets give them a permanent job rather than holding them for years as a cost-cutting measure,” he said.

Labor disputes on the other side of the line did not appear to interfere with holiday traffic, according to Canada Customs representative Faith Saint John. Saint John said customs officers had refused to work overtime over the Canadian Victoria Day long weekend. On May 19 their union, Customs Excise Union Douanes Accise (CEUDA), issued a press release indicating their members had voted strongly in favor of strike action if the Canadian government didn’t adjust their pay scales to reflect their new duties as peace officers with power to arrest without warrant for violations of the criminal code, including drunk driving. “Customs officers have been waiting for over four years for the government to recognize the changes in their jobs. They’re angry and fed up with the government’s endless, empty promises and they’re telling their employer they won’t put up with it anymore,” said CEUDA president Ron Moran.

Saint John acknowledged the job action at the border was likely not over. “Those job actions may continue over the summer,” she said. “Management will monitor wait times and they have some leeway as far as moving shifts to address that.”