TWIC program faces even another delay

WASHINGTON -- A post-Sept. 11 program to provide special identification cards to every worker with access to U.S. seaports could face more delays because workers are not getting help when they apply.

The contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp., is taking 16 minutes to answer calls to the help desk instead of the three-minute standard the government requires, according to the agency that oversees the program.

Port workers use the help line for questions about the card and the status of background checks. About 70 percent of the callers hang up after waiting about eight minutes, according to the federal Transportation Security Administration.

The agency has asked Lockheed to provide a plan for meeting the three-minute wait time standard.

The company is trying to resolve the problems, spokeswoman Leslie Holoweiko said. She said Lockheed created an automated system for self-service and average wait times have already dropped two minutes.

By next April 15, 1.2 million workers are expected to be enrolled in the Transportation Worker Identification Credential program. Enrollment, which began in October, was at 309,472 as of last Friday.

The chairman of the House of Representatives Homeland Security Committee, Rep. Bennie Thompson, said "the phones are ringing, and nobody's home to answer their questions."

Democrat Thompson said he has heard that some workers have waited for hours to reach the help desk, and when they do speak to representatives, they are given inaccurate or misleading answers.

The $70 million-plus (?44.7 million-plus) program has been criticized because of potentially intrusive background checks on the workers and the $132.50 (?84.60) cost of the card, which workers pay. In addition, the department has not deployed machines to read the cards. There are plans to test the machines later this year.