Flaws in TWIC rollout could hurt mariners and the entire industry

May 7, 2008 12:00 AM
After years of delays, the rules for obtaining a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) were finally established by the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Safety Administration in 2007. Nationally, as of Sept. 25, 2008, the TWIC card will be required for anyone who is allowed unescorted access to a marine terminal or a secure area of a vessel. It is estimated that over one million people here in the United States, including longshore workers, truck drivers and merchant mariners will need to apply for the cards.

Like the others applying for a TWIC card, we professional mariners must go down to an enrollment site, wait in line, fill out biographical information, get fingerprinted and have a digital picture taken. Of course, we must also pay our fee of $105.25 to $132.50, depending on how long the card will be good for. (I chose to pay $132.50 so my TWIC card will be good for five years). Cashier’s checks, money orders and credit cards (no personal checks) made out to Lockheed Martin, the independent contractor hired by TSA to do the enrollment, can be used for payment.

When approved, we must go back in person to the same enrollment center to be issued our card. A few months ago the entire process was taking a few weeks. When I applied in late February the Lockheed Martin representative told me to expect two months. By the time the September deadline comes around, who knows how long the wait will be.

If the application is denied, TSA must give notice in the manner specified by the applicant, either by email, mail or phone. As of this writing, there is a 60-day appeal window for an application that is initially turned down. That’s fine for shoreside workers, but I think it discriminates against professional mariners working on ships or boats. Anyone vaguely familiar with the U.S. merchant mariner knows that it’s commonplace on many vessels for the crew to work four months or longer. Military Sealift Command ships often require a 10- or 11-month tour. Since many merchant mariners only get a month or two of vacation between work tours, it’s very possible that a sailor who applies for a TWIC card while on vacation could return home to find notification that he or she was denied — and that the 60 day appeal limit has long since lapsed. I think that the appeal period for merchant mariners should be extended to 360 days.

Now, there are a number of reasons TSA will turn down your application, including certain crimes and being in the country illegally. There is a list, ostensibly complete, on the TWIC Web site: www.tsa.gov/twic. Interestingly, nowhere on that list is being born in another country a reason for an application to be turned down — yet there are U.S. merchant mariners who are now finding that their initial TWIC applications are being denied simply because they were born outside of the United States.

I know a master mariner, a Kings Point graduate, who had his initial TWIC application turned down because he was born in the Netherlands — even though he was a U.S. citizen at birth. He told me, “Kelly, I applied for my TWIC early to be an example for my crew. When TSA notified me a few days before returning to the ship that my application was denied, I was shocked. Despite the fact that my U.S. citizenship was good enough to get me into the United States Merchant Marine Academy, to sail in the American merchant marine for nearly three decades and to command U.S. flag ships, it evidently wasn’t good enough for me to be initially approved for a TWIC card.”

Unbelievably, his case is not the only one I have heard of. I’ve found out about two other American merchant mariners, both U.S. citizens born on military bases in Japan, who were initially denied TWIC cards.

Though someone denied a TWIC card gets only 60 days to appeal, the Coast Guard and TSA have no limitation on how fast they must complete the review of an appeal after it has been made. Combining those whose applications are turned down because they were born outside the United States with those who are denied for other reasons, thousands of the workers applying for the TWIC card will have their initial applications denied — and will then have to appeal the decision. When this happens, how long will it take for the Coast Guard and TSA to decide on whether a specific appeal is accepted or rejected — weeks, months or even longer?

This is a major issue, because while awaiting an appeal decision, a person can be barred from working. On the TWIC Web site it clearly states that while a rejection is being appealed the person can be denied access to secure areas of a port or vessel. That means a mariner waiting for an appeal decision could be prohibited by the Coast Guard from entering a marine terminal, and/or barred by the company from entering secure areas of the vessel — places like the bridge or engine room. Needless to say, a watch-standing mate or AB who can’t go on the bridge is unable to do his or her job. It would be the same with an engineer who couldn’t go down to the engine room.

The TWIC card is an attempt to make our ports safer, and I applaud that. I can’t help but feel, however, that the implementation of the program has in many ways not been well thought out — and that some of the rules and criteria the TSA established for obtaining a TWIC card have not been fully adhered to. If problems with the implementation of the TWIC program, like those I have pointed out here, are ignored, I believe that they could turn the entire TWIC experience into a fiasco — not just for merchant mariners but also for the entire U.S. maritime industry.

Till next time I wish you all Smooth Sailin’.

Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. He lives on an island near Seattle. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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