DIGGING DEEPER: Hiring of airport workers slowed by waits for background checks

Fran Gibbs (far left, peach blouse) accepts an application for ParkATL during the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport job fair at the Georgia International Convention Center on October 8, 2019. The event featured more than 60 of the airport community’s top employers offering 2,000-plus jobs. (Photo by Phil Skinner for the AJC)

Fran Gibbs (far left, peach blouse) accepts an application for ParkATL during the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport job fair at the Georgia International Convention Center on October 8, 2019. The event featured more than 60 of the airport community’s top employers offering 2,000-plus jobs. (Photo by Phil Skinner for the AJC)

If you've waited in a long line for food at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport or noticed that a restaurant on your concourse seems short-staffed, one culprit may have been the length of time it takes workers to undergo airport background checks and get badges.

Long waits for airport badges mean that in the tight job market, some potential hires find other positions outside the airport before they can get security clearance at Hartsfield-Jackson — leaving some hiring managers frustrated as they try to maintain enough workers to staff locations.

Over the past year, some airport restaurant operators said that in several instances, they experienced weeks-long delays to get workers the requisite security clearance. They said workers sometimes wait hours in the security office to go through the badging process.

Airport officials point to stringent background screening requirements for workers aimed at minimizing an "insider threat." Plus there's the sheer volume of employees constantly cycling through Hartsfield-Jackson.

“It’s a national vetting process,” said Jan Lennon, the airport’s assistant general manager for safety and security.

At the world's busiest airport, the security office handles more than 500 applicants a day. That includes new job applicants and the 65,000 workers who need to have their badges renewed every six months, every year or every two years. Prior to 2016, the airport only did background checks when a worker was hired. But to comply with a federal directive, it began conducting background checks on workers at least every two years.

Travelers fill the dining area on Concourse A beside the Low Country restaurant at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport on Sept 26, 2018, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com)

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The growth in volume "exceeds the security office's ability to provide a consistent level of service," Hartsfield-Jackson acknowledged in a report to the Atlanta City Council. The report was a response to a City Council resolution requiring the airport to create a plan to address the problem of badging delays.

The volume of applicants for security badges is exacerbated by high turnover in airport jobs. Some airport restaurateurs say workers will leave for 5 or 10 cents more per hour in pay — and each time they job-hop from one airport concessionaire to another, they need to go through the badging process again.

What’s more, some airport workers lose hours of unpaid time waiting in the security office when they must renew their badges.

The City Council resolution called for the airport to limit employee wait times to two hours maximum, since many have waited much longer than that. The resolution said making the process more efficient “will improve worker morale, employer productivity and profitability.”

The issue “has been a discussion at many of the concessionaire meetings,” Hartsfield-Jackson assistant manager of community affairs Chermaine Axam-Wilkins acknowledged at the airport’s fall job fair.

Some concessionaires said badging hasn’t been a problem for them. Others said it affects their operations.

FBI Special Agent Charles Orgbon Jr. (left), working as a recruiter, talks with Desiree Harvey-Lovell during the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport job fair at the Georgia International Convention Center on October 8, 2019. (Photo by Phil Skinner for the AJC)

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Initiatives to Reduce Wait Times

Denise Mitchem, a consultant to Global Concessions, said it sometimes takes 90 minutes at the security office to get badged, but other times it has taken several hours.

At the airport job fair, concessionaires said people want to start working as soon as possible so they can get paid and pay bills. So they end up taking another job instead of continuing to wait for the airport security clearance. The number of days it takes for vetting can vary, Lennon said. Vetting those born abroad may take longer, and if a background check turns up information, an applicant may be asked to come into the office in person.

With the expectation of a two-week wait for badges, “People say, ‘You know what, I got something else,’” said Master ConcessionAir shift leader Kolbi Burson.

Areas concourse manager Matthew Cunningham said the wait has caused a shortage of staffing and puts a strain on current employees, causing long lines and affecting customer service.

The issue also affects other airport contractors, including for janitorial services, said Irene Hunt, director of operations for janitorial contractor CSM.

The airport has launched some initiatives to reduce wait times.

Airport officials are staggering staff lunches instead of closing the security office from noon-1 p.m. daily. They’re also opening the training room earlier, issuing timed tickets for credentialing, and requiring companies to notify the badging office when they expect a large influx of employees to be badged.

The airport security office is using overtime and diverting administrative staff to help process applicants, control crowds and manage queues.

Multiple restaurants line Concourse B at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. (Curtis Compton/ AJC 2018 file)

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‘It’s a More Complex Problem’

Justin Triplett, director of finance for MBC Concessions, said in the competitive job market, high school students are a huge potential source of workers at airport concessions during evening or weekend shifts. But the daytime hours of the airport security office are a big hurdle to hiring them because it’s difficult for some students to get to the airport before the badging office closes.

While badging delays have contributed to understaffing at airport concessions, the security office itself is coping with its own problems of understaffing. It has worked to fill vacant positions and has requested additional temporary positions.

To get a worker badged, most of the work falls on the airport. “Then it goes to TSA and FBI, at which point it’s just a waiting game until they get back to you,” said Jeffrey Price, an aviation security expert and professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, who trains airports on security procedures and published a textbook on airport security.

If any arrest information comes up in background checks, “the airport then has to go through that list and determine if any of the things on there are crimes that could disqualify them from getting a badge,” Price said. “It takes a while. … Someone has to literally, physically look and read those reports.”

He said dozens of different classifications also affect the process, and each badge has coding for which doors it will open, depending on the worker.

“It’s the volume of people getting pushed through, and there’s only so many hours in a day to look at the paperwork,” Price said. “It’s a more complex problem than people think.”

Hartsfield-Jackson has more than 100 restaurants and food and beverage outlets. The top 10 restaurants at the world's busiest airport include national chains, a local favorite and fine dining. No. 10: Popeyes on Concourse B, with $5.6 million in revenue last year No. 9: One Flew South, a sushi bar and high-end restaurant on Concourse E, with $5.7 million in revenue No. 8: Carrabba's on Concourse C, with $5.9 million in revenue No. 7: TGI Fridays on Concourse E, with $6.1 million in revenue No. 6: LongHorn

Commute Is Just The Start

Next year, the airport plans to extend the hours of its security office with the help of temporary staff. It also plans to enroll more employees in an FBI program known as "Rap Back," which allows the Transportation Security Administration to do recurrent fingerprint-based criminal vetting of airport employees instead of having to re-fingerprint them every two years.

Meanwhile, for workers, the airport security process not only subjects them to an intensive badging procedure, it also inflates how long it takes them to get to their job site following their commute.

"You're burning more time in your day," Price said. "You may have to go to an employee parking lot, then go on an employee bus. Some of these people have to go through screening to get to work."

Post-commute, it can add another 30 to 40 minutes a day to the journey, Price said. Some airport concession and contractor employees decide that for negligibly lower pay, they’d rather take a job elsewhere that’s less of a hassle.