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Underpaid and Overstretched? House Homeland Security Subcommittee Discusses the TSA Workforce

The issue of Transportation Security Administration workforce arose at last week’s House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security hearing. The hearing was primarily intended to discuss how well the TSA Modernization Act has been implemented.

Staffing at the most senior level was highlighted from the outset with Subcommittee Chairman Lou Correa (D-Calif.) and Ranking Member Debbie Lesko (R-Ariz.) voicing their concerns at the increased demands on TSA Administrator David Pekoske’s time since he was appointed as the acting Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security.

But this may be an easier hurdle to overcome than those facing Transportation Security Officers (TSOs).

Correa told the hearing that TSOs are among the lowest paid workers in the federal government. “They’re also not afforded some of the basic workplace protections that most other government employees enjoy,” he said. “Improving working conditions for these officer’s is key to TSA’s evolution as a professional national security agency.”

Some 63,000 professionals make up the TSA workforce, securing and facilitating transportation for an average of 85 million passengers, $2.56 billion in cargo, and critical transportation infrastructure around the country.

A significant portion of this workforce went without pay for 35 days during the partial government shutdown. TSA’s acting Deputy Administrator Patricia Cogswell commended the workforce, adding that “despite suffering financial and personal hardships, they demonstrated true professionalism and commitment to transportation security mission.”

She noted that congress is exploring ways to prevent a repeat scenario.

Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.) voiced his concerns about workforce retention, pointing out that “we still have an unbelievably high turnover rate of TSA employees.”

He added that as a very frequent traveler, he notices the rapid staff changes.

“I do an average of 1,800 air miles a week. And so, I get a chance to know the guys for about six months,” he said. “And then there are a whole new group coming in and seems like every other time I’m in the airport, they’re planning a new group to come in.”

Cleaver suggested this turnover issue was due to poor pay and asked if this is likely to change.

Cogswell responded that TSA has the authority to provide a retention incentive, and is already doing so.

“For those airports where retention is significantly above what we would like to see, we authorized and do pay a differential to them now. That differential ranges from about 5 percent over the regular salary to over 60 percent over the salary depending on local working conditions and the level of retention we issue,” she said.

“We have additional authorities with respect to other pay reforms that we can take. Within the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, there is a broad ability for us to set what type of pay system we have. What we don’t have however is budget to make broad-scale changes across the board.”

TSA commissioned a blue-ribbon panel of public and private sector human capitol experts to review TSA’s human capital policy and policy processes and reestablished its national advisory council, which is comprised of advisors from TSA’s uniformed workforce.

Subsequently, TSA developed a number of workforce initiatives that Cogswell told the hearing TSA is now implementing, such as a two-tier performance system, the model officer recognition program and TSO career progression.

Correa reminded the hearing that section 1907 of the TSA Modernization Act requires that TSA convene a workforce group with labor and submit to congress a report containing recommendations to reform TSA’s personnel management system.

Cogswell responded that the working group has been formed and already had “many productive discussions, down to and including we extended the period of time because the discussions were so productive, they had additional items they wanted to include.”

The group will also consider reforms to merit system protection board and grievances procedures.

The working group concluded its deliberations at the end of August and completed the drafting of the report in September. The report is now in clearance and Cogswell said it is expected “in a matter of weeks”

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Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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