Cafeteria Workers Escape National Security Nightmare
RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
Earlier this month, two long-time cafeteria ladies in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, were escorted from their jobs at two federal facilities. They were told they have failed to pass a routine Department of Homeland Security background check.
For two weeks, the women tried to find out what was going on and why they were caught in what seemed like a bureaucratic nightmare.
NPR's Pam Fessler has the story.
PAM FESSLER: For 24 years, Mary Broughton has cooked at the cafeteria in the federal office building in Pittsburgh making chili and fresh soup daily. Her colleague, Judy Miller, works at the cafeteria across the street in the federal courthouse.
JUDY MILLER: I'd made coffee, cashiered, and clean up and fill-ins and stuff like that. So I've been there 20 years.
FESSLER: So imagine Miller's surprise when she was called into her boss' office and told she had to leave the premises immediately, that she hadn't passed a background check required for all those who work at federal facilities.
MILLER: I was in shock. I said, me? I said, I can't believe it because I've never done anything in my life to deserve that I wasn't suitable. I haven't even jaywalked. I haven't gotten a ticket. I have not been arrested for anything.
MARY BROUGHTON: We had no idea what's going on.
FESSLER: Mary Broughton says she knew of nothing in her past that would disqualify her.
BROUGHTON: Me and Judy been teasing each other saying that we're Bonnie and Clyde in a previous life.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
FESSLER: But it really wasn't that funny. Both women were put on administrative leave by their employer, Sodexho, which has the contract to run the cafeterias, and they both filed for unemployment.
They also tried to find out from Homeland Security what the problem was.
BROUGHTON: I think I called at least 50 or 60 times, even at 7:00 in the morning and left my name, the last four digits of the my Social Security number and a phone number where they could reach me and they say we'll get back to you as soon as possible and no one has returned my calls.
FESSLER: So last week with the help of their Congressman, Democrat Mike Doyle, the two women filed formal appeals. And yesterday the Homeland Security Department said both women could return to work.
DENNIS O: Did we make some mistakes? Yes, we did.
FESSLER: Dennis O'Connor is a spokesman for the Federal Protective Service, which handles security at federal buildings.
It seems that someone misread Judy Miller's Social Security number and confused her with someone else who did have an arrest record.
Mary Broughton apparently failed to report an incident in her past that investigators ultimately decided was not significant.
O'Connor says the agency acted as soon as the problems were uncovered.
CONNOR: We always do try to err on the side of public safety to make sure the facilities stay secure and we're also trying to be fair to the individual. It's a difficult balancing act to pull off.
FESSLER: But Congressman Doyle thinks maybe the government should err more on the side of the individual whose livelihood is at stake.
MIKE DOYLE: And especially when you're talking about people that are living paycheck to paycheck. These are not people that could've afforded to lose a couple days' pay.
The same phone call that was made to her employer to say take these women off the job could've been made to the employer saying we have some questions about two of your employees.
FESSLER: Judy Miller says she's happy to be going back to work, but she's also outraged at what she had to go through.
MILLER: They apologized, but to not check the paperwork, that's ridiculous. To say - accuse somebody of being arrested when they haven't.
FESSLER: And she says if it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone.
Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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