The head of the Federal Air Marshal Service’s Philadelphia office is tampering with performance reviews, pressuring workers to put off necessary medical care, and opening fraudulent investigations in an illegal attempt to harass and suppress his unionized workforce, the Air Marshal Association alleged on Wednesday June 8th.
The complaint details how Supervisory Air Marshal in Charge Richard Altomare, the Transportation Security Administration and the Department of Homeland Security conspired to harass unionized employees and crush workers’ speech rights.
“The Philadelphia field office is in crisis, and workers there have endured a series of failing managers who are devoid of experience and leadership skills,” said Air Marshal Association President John Casaretti.
The complaint details how Altomare began a “despicable and targeted” pattern of harassment and intimidation of unionized employees immediately after his 2021 appointment to lead the Philadelphia field office.
In October 2021, over union protests, Altomare implemented a policy of pressuring Air Marshals, including one seeking cancer treatment, to forgo using sick leave or other forms of paid time off for medical appointments. Altomare also began altering employee performance evaluations, especially those of union members, to eliminate or reduce raises, bonuses, or promotions that they would have otherwise earned. Altomare further retaliated against employees who spoke out against his policies by “selectively” targeting them for misconduct reports. The harassment culminated with some employees receiving direct threats.
The Aviation and Transportation Security Act of the 107th Congress (2001-2002) enacted November 19, 2001 established the Transportation Security Administration, and granted the TSA Administrator broad emergency powers in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Included in these emergency provisions were blanket authorities for the TSA Administrator to create new work rules and systems of compensation. Casaretti notes, “This unprecedented authority was a human capital disaster, cultivating an environment of management abuse, favoritism and discrimination which resulted in record low employee morale, sky high turnover, unjustly stratified pay, and waves of lawsuits.”
The Philadelphia Field Office issues are just the latest in a long list of woes for Air Marshals. The Air Marshal Association is actively educating lawmakers about the harsh reality of working for 20 years as a Federal Air Marshal under the TSA systems. When common medical issues started to surface in the workgroup around 2011, the government commissioned Harvard University to conduct a sleep study on Federal Air Marshals, but the full report was suppressed when details about the grueling shifts, constant exhaustion, inadequate rest, and cognitive impairment surfaced. The agency also uses their pay authority to reward employees via subjective scorecards, and the resulting favoritism, racism, and retaliation have caused over $30,000 pay differences between otherwise equal employees.
The union also points to examples of Air Marshals being assigned to punishing shifts without rest breaks or overtime pay, such as the 18.5-hour long Newark, New Jersey and New Delhi, India nonstop mission and its 20.5 hour return flight which the TSA assigned following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. In 2015, after years of Air Marshals flying these types of arduous missions without receiving intelligence briefings or explanation, Casaretti filed a collective action lawsuit on behalf of his co-workers to recover the unpaid overtime. The court recently allowed most elements of the precedential claim to advance.
The TSA recognized the Air Marshal Association in 2011 when it was forced to begin deducting payroll allotments for the fledgling group. Now the union meets regularly with TSA officials, collaborates with Congress on laws and appropriations, and over half of all flying Federal Air Marshals are dues paying members.
Union members have been harassed as far back as 2009, when the Association began organizing as an offshoot of a larger labor union. Since TSA security screeners were already well underway with organizing their workgroup, the agency did not want any more employees unionizing. To help stop this movement, former President George W. Bush signed an Executive Order in late 2008 to add Air Marshals to a list of government workers forbidden to bargain collectively. This executive action did not deter Casaretti, who recalls, “After the 2008 EO was signed, they launched a series of frivolous investigations on me. All were baseless, and although I was routinely harassed by investigators, I was cleared and never received any discipline.” Under TSA rules, if a manager merely opens a frivolous inquiry against an Air Marshal, the employee is ineligible for raises, bonuses, transfers, and competitive job assignments. Some inquiries purposefully take years, and because there are no deadlines for investigators to meet, careers are ruined, and managers are able to freeze pay increases indefinitely.
Recently, a multiyear Congressional inquiry from the House Oversight and Government Reform committee’s majority and minority members looked into systemic management abuse and senior official misconduct at TSA. The subsequent reports made it clear that the agency’s authority needed to be reexamined. Another oversight report made clear that Senior Executives within the TSA engaged in serious acts of misconduct but escaped discipline virtually unscathed. When lawmakers reached out to the union for input, they received volumes of data about toxic management, low morale, and an agency nurtured ‘culture of fear’. The union also provided examples of manager misconduct, which was investigated quickly then dismissed, versus identical misconduct charges against Air Marshals which resulted in long investigations and proposals to fire the employee.
However, the 2021 assignment of Altomare to the Philadelphia Field Office has brought TSA dysfunction to another level, with one supervisor sent out to ‘hunt’ for union members, and in Altomare’s own words during a management meeting, declaring “it’s us against them”. This targeted assault against the Air Marshal Association’s member’s right of free association is what finally prompted the federal court filing.
“These deprivations occur due to the unprecedented authority granted to the TSA under the ATSA,” said Casaretti. “The emergency which created the TSA is over, and it is time for Congress to place the runaway TSA bureaucracy back within regular government management systems.”
Congress is working to remake the agency via H.R.903 – the Rights for the TSA Workforce Act of 2021 which passed the House on May 12, 2022, and the companion Senate bill, S.1856 of the same name introduced on 05/26/2021. The bills seek to move the TSA from the controversial ATSA systems and place them into the established Title 5 systems enjoyed by the majority of government workers. The union has spent 5 years working closely with lawmakers on the legislation. For Air Marshals, it means fixing longstanding issues such as high suicide rates and mental health concerns, arduous duty days, intelligence-based scheduling, more diverse training, and ultimately aligning the Federal Air Marshal Service to counter current threats.
“The 20th Anniversary of the 9/11 attacks have come and gone, and the experienced Air Marshals hired in response to those attacks have almost all retired. Each of them has paid a high price for patriotism, battling an abusive agency that makes up its own rules. Individually they succeed, but it’s despite the agency and not because of it,” Casaretti says. “We will continue to work with lawmakers to fix this permanently, but we hope the courts will grant us some immediate relief.”
The union is represented by Mario Bordogna of Clark Hill PLC, and Nicholas Wieczorek of Clark Hill PLC.
The case is Air Marshal Association v. Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security et al., case number 2:22-cv-02254, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania