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Raids Expose Weak Oversight of Airport Subcontractors

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Almost three dozen undocumented immigrants face felony charges and likely deportation after federal raids this week at O’Hare International Airport. The case points to weaknesses in oversight of airport subcontractors.

Chicago-based United Airlines loads cargo onto its planes at O’Hare with help from a multinational company called Swissport, which has subcontracted some of that work to a Bensenville temporary-employment agency called Ideal Staffing Solutions, Inc. Authorities say that agency had dispatched the immigrants to the airport and provided them phony security badges.

Swissport’s Chicago manager says he can’t talk about his company’s responsibility for contracting Ideal Staffing. Neither can United spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.

McCARTHY: I’ve kind of asked some questions around and have been instructed that this is an official investigation and so we cannot discuss parts of the investigation. We are cooperating fully with the authorities.

Ideal Staffing incorporated in 2003. The two Illinois trade groups for temp agencies say they’d never heard of the company until this week’s raids. The Illinois Labor Department says it’s received three complaints about Ideal and that one remains the subject of investigation. Ideal’s owner and corporate secretary haven’t returned our calls.

BALANOFF: The airport and city has to do a better job vetting contractors.

Tom Balanoff heads a Service Employees International Union local that represents about 400 O’Hare workers.

BALANOFF: There’s a lot of responsible contractors in this city, in this country, who do airport security, do airport cleaning, airplane cleaning. There really has to be some pretty good standards applied to who they’re hiring as contractors.

The city’s Aviation Department coordinates background checks for everyone who works at the airport. But the federal Transportation Security Administration says it doesn’t require the Aviation Department to scrutinize every O’Hare company or subcontractor.

PRIDE: It’s a situation that is similar to being a property manager of a mall.

That’s Aviation Department spokeswoman Karen Pride.

PRIDE: There are tenants there. There are stores and businesses. And they have the right to hire the people that they feel can perform the services that they need.

But, unlike a mall, O’Hare has tenants that send planes full of people into the air. Jack Riley focuses on transportation security for the Rand Corporation.

RILEY: A good way to ensure the integrity of the chain is to make sure that the airport authority is auditing, spot-checking, to make sure that the subcontractors are adhering to the security provisions of the contract.

But the Aviation Department says it doesn’t spot-check subcontractors either. I’m Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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