Reasons for TSA Understaffing, Strains on Screeners Outlined in Report

DHS’s IG found that “TSA’s initial staffing actions lacked coherency and resulted in some cases in significant disparities in staffing at airports,” resulting in a “staffing plan adopted by TSA [that] resulted in significant variations in staffing among airports. Some airports were understaffed while others were overstaffed.”

Unfortunately, the IG found that “there are classification issues that preclude a firm conclusion” about TSA’s staffing and functions.

In the meantime, it was reported this week that TSA “Red Team” undercover agents were able to smuggle prohibited items past screening checkpoints at Newark Liberty International Airport more than 90 percent of the time. The agents were able to smuggle through an array of fake bombs and guns in 20 of 22 tests at checkpoints through the hub’s three terminals.

According to US counterterror intelligence officials familiar with TSA’s “Red Teaming” who regularly talk to HSToday.us on background, similar security problems were found at “a good number” of other airports around the country.

Last month, The Clarion-Ledger published accounts by TSA screeners that they received regular briefings in advance of supposedly covert tests of security procedures. These workers also told of dangerous items that were allowed into secure areas of the airport as a result of a lax attitude by TSA managers toward following federal procedures.

However, TSA says an investigation into security practices at the Jackson-Evers International Airport found no wrongdoing on the part of Mississippi Federal Security Director Larry Rowlett, who nevertheless was suddenly reassigned.

But Rep. Bennie Thompson said Friday he expects a second review of TSA’s security procedures at Jackson-Evers International Airport to uncover new information about alleged problems at the airport.

Earlier this year, TSA officials acknowledged that Jackson Mayor Frank Melton was allowed to board several commercial flights with his personal firearms. In January, TSA officials in Washington issued a memo to local TSA officials ordering that Melton no longer be allowed to fly armed.

Meanwhile, TSA announced that baggage handlers, gate agents, ramp workers and other airport employees who in the past were not subject to any security searches before the enter restricted and secure areas of airports nationwide are now being subjected to closer scrutiny.

The DHS IG found in its audit released this week that "TSA excludes from its count of administrative staff those workers in non-screener positions with responsibilities for other FSD [Federal Security Directors] functions, such as law enforcement, cargo inspection, legal counsel, and regulatory compliance,” the report states. “In addition, TSA often enlists screeners to perform administrative duties; some are tied to screener administration, but some are used to fulfill TSA or FSD administrative needs. Available timekeeping records do not permit a separation of the costs or associated FTEs [Full Time Equivalent] into the two usages, so it is not possible to determine the full extent of FSD administrative activity.”

“We were told that, to a lesser degree, FSD administrative staff also was employed upon occasion to fill screener administrative needs,” the IG report notes, concluding, “thus, it is not possible to determine how much administrative workforce TSA now uses, and thereby to assess whether TSA uses too much or needs more.”

HSToday.us reported nearly two years ago that random interviews with TSA screeners at airports from Los Angeles to Washington, DC found many were having to work longer hours and extra shifts because of what they said was understaffing, and had been called to work on days off due to the lack of manpower to meet workloads.

Screeners across the country said increased security measures had put a strain on the existing workforce, including having to cut short scheduled breaks because of staffing problems.

Indeed, the IG’s report states “TSA did not develop or use any formula-based model for its staffing decisions, and this resulted in many over or understaffed airports.”

HSToday.us was told that passengers and baggage flying to and out of the Washington, DC area (Reagan National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington airports) were being subjected to extra scrutiny, a move that had put more strain on screeners assigned to the Capital region airports, screeners nationwide said in background interviews.

Every screener HSToday.us spoke to said the agency needs more money for better equipment to speed up the processing of passengers and more screeners to lighten the workload on the existing force.

At the nearly dozen major metropolitan airports HSToday.us visited, screeners were courteous, polite, respectful, and appeared to be well trained. HSToday.us observed no screener taking shortcuts to speed up the processing of air travelers. Despite their concerns and complaints, the screeners interviewed performed professionally and said they took their security responsibility seriously.

According to the IG, “with a workforce of 47,037 screeners, TSA screens more than 250 million pieces of checked baggage and carry-on passenger baggage annually at the nation’s 429 commercial airports. FSDs oversee TSA activities at the airports. There are 1,850 FSD employees nationwide. They perform a myriad of functions, most in direct support of screening operations, including payroll, budget, personnel, customer service, screening training, scheduling, and clerical. FSD staff also support TSA’s 1,000 regulatory inspectors and 300 law enforcement personnel who work in airports around the country. FSD administrative staffs vary in their composition.”

In July 2005, TSA completed a Hub-Spoke Realignment and Reallocation Plan that is intended to alter the operational relationships of FSD offices at various airports, creating principal (Hub) and dependent (Spoke) airports, and provide better symmetry among FSD staffing patterns when analyzed according to category of airport, number of screeners, and number of administrative positions.

TSA expected to complete implemention of the plan by September 30, but has not received the funding for the additional 139 positions they say they require.

“Staffing under the old allocations should be realigned and the new plan appears to provide better solutions,” the IG found, but ultimately concluded it does “not have a confident basis upon which to recommend that TSA should reduce, cap, or increase its FSD administrative staff without better data.”

However, “even TSA’s proposed plan does not answer the question of whether it needs more or could get by with fewer administrative positions. It is only a more uniform allocation of the number of positions stated.”

And “TSA has never determined the precise number of FSD administrative positions it needs. Consequently, our recommendations first propose that TSA conduct and complete such an analysis. In the meantime, we would not recommend a cap or limit on TSA’s administrative positions. This opinion is based on interviews we conducted in which TSA employees in the field affirmed the existence of administrative shortages and in which we learned of the recurring diversion of screeners for administrative work. TSA may also reap economies as administrative functions are consolidated in its new Hub-Spoke arrangement and as a result of its proposed transition to a reportedly more efficient payroll system.

“So, we are not confident that the data or available information can support a specific FTE limitation,” the IG’s report states.

The Homeland Security Department’s Inspector General further found that, “complicating an evaluation of FSD staffing levels is the fact that FSDs regularly assign screeners to perform administrative functions. According to TSA headquarters’ officials and FSDs, the primary reason why screeners perform administrative work is that airports lack sufficient administrative personnel to overcome inefficiencies in recording time and attendance data.

“The larger screener workforce makes it an attractive labor pool from which to draw when administrative work is required. From pay period 20 of 2005 through pay period 1 of 2006, screeners performed administrative work equal to 1,441 full time equivalent positions.13 This equates to 78% of the 1,850-member FSD administrative staff. Screening staff worked overtime to complete administrative tasks. For example, screeners worked 150,019 hours and 158,262 hours of overtime on administrative functions during pay periods 20 and 21 respectively.”

TSA’s written responses to each of the IG’s specific reform recommendations, and the IG’s response to TSA’s responses, are included in the IG’s report.

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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