Homeland Security officers who check incoming travelers at the region's international bridges claim that long hours and forced overtime are causing some officers to be mentally exhausted and are jeopardizing the nation's security.
Their union claims officers at the Peace, Rainbow, and Lewiston-Queenston bridges are being pushed beyond reasonable limits at a time when the nation depends on them to keep terrorists and weapons of mass destruction from entering the United States.
"The stress level for people in my job has at least doubled and probably tripled since 9/1 1," said Debra Skok Watson, a bridge officer and steward with the American Federation of Government Employees.
"A lot of us work forced overtime -- 16-hour shifts -- several times a month," said Watson, a bridge officer and steward with the American Federation of Government Employees. "By your 14th hour, you're about as sharp as a cotton ball. Your mind is mush, you're burnt out, and you're a lot less likely to ask the kind of sharp questions that would keep the next Osama bin Laden from entering this country."
In a formal complaint, the union also claims that officers are sometimes forced to stay in their inspection booths for up to eight straight hours and that some have been refused permission to take bathroom breaks.
At least one officer who needed a bathroom break was recently told by a supervisor to "use the trash can," and another was told to "find an empty pop bottle," the union alleged in a grievance filed with the U.S. Customs & Border Protection section of the Homeland Security Department.
The union said it has also filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety & Health Administration.
Agency spokesman Kevin Corsaro and Buffalo port director for Customs & Border Protection Joseph J. Wilson had no detailed responses to the union's claims.
"The security of our country is the primary mission of U.S. Customs & Border Protection, and we take allegations of this nature very seriously," Corsaro said in an e-mail. "The allegations in this grievance are greatly exaggerated. We consider the health and safety of our officers one of our highest priorities. Union grievances are of an internal nature, and, for that reason, are not discussed outside of the agency.
"The Port of Buffalo consists of approximately 500 officers. The number of officers working primary inspections is ever-changing and dependent upon operational needs."
Local Customs officers have done an excellent job since the September 2001 terror attacks, Corsaro has said, using new technology to make closer checks of vehicles and arresting many smuggling suspects.
In an April 2002 interview, Wilson told The Buffalo News that some officers were working 16-hour shifts, but at that time, he said an anticipated increase in staff would address that problem.
The three major bridges in Buffalo, Lewiston and Niagara Falls are among the busiest crossings on the U.S.-Canadian border. Authorities estimate that about 13 million people, six million passenger vehicles and 1.3 million trucks cross the local spans every year.
According to the union, approximately 350 to 400 officers work regularly in primary inspection booths on the bridges.
On a busy day, more than 480 vehicles may pass by one officer's inspection booth, Watson said. Typically, an officer has 30 to 60 seconds to determine whether a person might be a terrorist or drug smuggler.
The union takes the position that each officer should spend no more than five of every eight work hours in a primary inspection booth. The union contends that the remaining work hours should be spent on other duties, such as conducting secondary inspections of vehicles, checking visas and running criminal background checks on a computer.
Watson said she has checked with other border crossings to Canada and Mexico and found that officers there are not allowed to remain in the booth for "more than four to five hours of an eight-hour shift."
"On a hot day, you can get light-headed from breathing in carbon monoxide fumes all day, but still, you have to do your job," Watson said.
"It's very stressful. You're under constant pressure to keep traffic moving, but you're also required to be hyper-observant about the way people talk, the answers they give, their body language and the appearance of their vehicle . . . No officer wants to be the one to allow a terrorist into this country.
From a financial standpoint, the increased security has created opportunities for some officers.
Customs officials said a rookie officer makes a base annual salary between $29,000 and $36,000. A 10-year veteran makes approximately $60,000.
According to Corsaro, officers who work a double shift get double pay for the second eight hours. Watson said some officers volunteer for double shifts and some make $25,000 a year in overtime.
"The money is good, but the stress is not worth it," Watson said. "We've had officers who have children and child care responsibilities, getting ready to go home, and their supervisors have told them they have to work a second shift. We've had a number of people quit because of this."
Some bridge supervisors are reportedly sympathetic toward those who work in the inspection booths.
The union said it obtained an e-mail that one supervisor wrote last month, expressing alarm about the situation.
"This past [day] was hell at the bridges," the union quoted the Buffalo area supervisor as writing.
"Talked to [an officer whose name was withheld]. He was on Primary for 7 1/2 hours . . . He could not even get a [bathroom] break. He said his mind was mush after a couple of hours and he is just hoping that he does not get fired because he screwed up and let someone in that he shouldn't have. Nobody ate for lunch. And this is our first line of defense?"
Andy Ramirez of Chino, Calif., runs an organization called Friends of the Border Patrol. He researches homeland security issues, runs a Web site and is an advocate for staffing increases for both the Border Patrol and Customs & Border Protection.
"I talk to Customs people all the time, and inadequate staffing is a problem throughout the agency. The northern border is completely understaffed," Ramirez said.
Ramirez said it concerns him when he hears that some officers in the Buffalo area work 16-hour shifts with few breaks. He said the work can be tiring and tedious, and respites are needed.
"You need a break every few hours," Ramirez said. "You need to get out of that booth to stretch your legs, use the bathroom, have a cup of coffee or just splash some water on your face.
"These people are under pressure. The government wants them to make more high-profile arrests. At the same time, they're told to keep the traffic moving. If something goes wrong, if a terrorist gets in, the officer is the one who's going to be blamed."