Federal authorities warned Thursday that time is running out to sign up for a high-tech security card allowing workers to access the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
With less than three months to go, only half of the estimated 67,000 workers at the twin ports have registered for the Transportation Workers Identification Credential, according to the U.S. Coast Guard and the Transportation Security Administration, which are overseeing the enrollment process.
"As we look at those numbers, I'm not confident that a lot of people who need these cards will have them on time," said U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Paul Wiedenhoeft.
Local registration for the TWIC card began Dec. 12, 2007, with an initial enrollment deadline of Sept. 25, 2008. When authorities saw that workers were slow to sign up for the cards, the deadline was extended to April 14.
Even though enrollment remains slow, port workers shouldn't expect another reprieve, according to TSA spokesman Nico Melendez.
Once April 15 arrives, those who don't have a TWIC card will either be denied access to harbor terminals, or may be escorted to work by port police and security officers.
"People might lose their jobs if they can't get to work, and that will lead to some serious personal repercussions," Melendez said. "But we are confident that people will be smart enough to have these cards by the time the deadline comes."
Local port officials have spent more than a year trying to figure out how to boost the sagging enrollment figures.
Federal authorities opened a third TWIC enrollment center on Terminal Island last spring after port workers complained about the inaccessibility of registration centers located in a San Pedro strip mall and a downtown Long Beach high-rise.
Additionally, authorities rolled out "mobile enrollment centers" to marine terminals, while numerous signs were posted along bridges and port access roads.
"We've done everything we can to get the word out, but it looks like a lot of people are just putting things off until the last minute," Melendez said.
The $70 million federal TWIC program was enacted by Congress as part of the Maritime Transportation Act of 2002, just months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
So far, about 35,000 truck drivers, longshore workers and others who access high-security areas of the San Pedro Bay ports have enrolled for a TWIC card, according to TSA figures.
Nationwide, about 800,000 workers are registered for the TWIC card. About 1.2 million people working at 147 ports are expected to meet the April 14 deadline.
For a $132.50 fee, applicants are photographed, have their fingerprints scanned into a biometric device and undergo an extensive background check that's matched against criminal databases, terrorist watch lists and immigration status.
The cardholder's vital information can be gleaned from a magnetic strip on the back of the TWIC cards.
Wiedenhoeft said that local applicants should not wait until the last minute to sign up for the TWIC card because the onslaught could clog the processing system.
"There's some reluctance on the part of some people who don't want to pay the fee, or have a philosophical problem with showing an ID to get to work, or have a criminal background," Wiedenhoeft said. "I think a number of people with criminal backgrounds would be surprised to find out they still might be eligible for a card, but they won't know until they sign up."