Other people’s baggage

A couple of weeks ago, on the day after two federal air marshals fatally shot an unarmed but apparently dangerous man in Miami, the Transportation Security Administration recruitment event at Sacramento Works on Del Paso Boulevard was packed.

“This is probably the largest group we’ve ever had,” said the recruiter, Nathan Dipillo. He’d expected around 30 people, and he got 52, ranging widely in age and ethnicity. Dipillo, a shorn-headed, barrel-chested man whose assertive manner and clutching handshake suggested his law-enforcement background, began by explaining that he was not an Army recruiter. When he asked, “What does TSA stand for?” and received mutterings of the correct answer, he snapped, “Wrong! It’s Take Scissors Away. Come on, people!” The recruits were stingy with their laughter. Whether because scissors had just been removed from the Prohibited Items List and are now allowed on planes again or because the prevailing mood inclined more to pragmatism than to whimsy, it was a tough crowd. They had the impassive faces of working-class people looking for work. They liked the sound of part-time with benefits. Dipillo tried again: “Sometimes we call it Thousands Standing Around.” He did not mention some of the other nicknames that have already begun floating through the four-year-old agency, like The Start of Adultery or The Start of Alcoholism.

The entry-level TSA gig is no easy racket. It’s not entirely thankless, but close; when people say thank you to airport screeners, it’s usually in the way they say it to cops who give them speeding tickets: unwittingly or sarcastically. Every day, for about 10 hours, your average TSA screener handles thousands of pounds of other people’s baggage, with a professional obligation to assume all of it could be catastrophically dangerous. And, as Dipillo explained, “even as entry-level employees, you have the power to cost an airport millions of dollars. You can shut down the whole airport.” At Sacramento International, wages for this responsibility start at $13.17 an hour.

Dipillo acknowledged a common perception of Sacramento as “Cow Town, USA,” and sold the job on its geographic flexibility. “There are 457 federalized airports nationwide,” he said. “You can transfer to any one of these.” True to form, the recruits seemed unmoved by appeals to their wanderlust. They leafed through the five-page preliminary application, which includes such procedural questions as “Do you have experience performing pat-down searches of individuals?” with multiple-choice answer options.

After delivering his spiel, Dipillo announced that anyone not applying could leave. They all lined up to file applications. Whoever from this group makes the first cut will eventually move on to timed baggage-handling and X-ray-observation tests, background checks and extensive interviews. Typically, the agency hires one of every 15 people who apply. As everyone in the room seemed to understand, one thing security jobs have going for them these days is job security.