TSA turnover alarms lawmakers

A TSA agent searches luggage at an airport.  Carolina K. Smith MD / 

Photo credit: Carolina K. Smith MD /

Security screeners at the Transportation Security Administration post some of the lowest satisfaction scores and have the highest attrition rates of any government employees. These issues were exacerbated during the 35-day government shutdown that saw TSA employees working without pay.

At a May 21 hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee, witnesses and lawmakers agreed that the problem was stressing the transportation system.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) pointed to the consistently low morale, as reported through the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Surveys, among TSA employees as a consequence of the low pay, lack of workplace rights and turnover.

John Kelly, the acting inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security, testified that "smaller airports have the highest attrition rates" and that "retention and training challenges contribute to airport security weaknesses."

That level of turnover means that TSA ends up spending money on training for employees who leave shortly after being hired, Kelly said. In fiscal year 2017, TSA spent $75 million on training more than 9,000 new security officers, about 20 percent of whom left within six months of being hired.

To provide more security to employees, American Federation of Government Employees President J. David Cox advocated extending title 5 rights, which cover protections such as collective bargaining and due process, to TSA screeners, as well as bringing them under the general schedule to improve and make their pay more consistent.

"Put them on the general schedule until we figure out something better," he said.

Former DHS Chief Human Capital Officer Jeff Neal said that while pay was the "most significant" issue among TSA employees, bringing them under the general schedule would not adequately address the morale problems.

"The problem with the general schedule is that it's a very inflexible system," Neal said. "Pay raises are not really necessary in some places, and in others, pay raises are desperately needed…. It's too blunt an instrument to actually be effective."

The hearing comes on the heels of the findings of a panel of public- and private-sector advisors, including Neal, on the challenges facing the TSA workforce. In its report, the panel said that while TSA employees identified pay as the "key" driver of turnover, problems with the hiring and promotion process, IT and concerns over favoritism "will continue to affect morale and turnover."

Earlier this year, Thompson introduced a bill that would extend federal civil service protections to TSA screeners and put them under the general schedule for pay, but it has not received a House vote.

About the Author

Chase Gunter is a former FCW staff writer.


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