It’s not a secret that the Department of Homeland Security is the worst place to work in the federal government. According to its 240,000 employees, DHS ranked last – again – in the 2019 annual employee satisfaction survey, The Best Places to Work in the Federal Government.
Unhappy employees can lead to higher turnover, which hurts the agency financially due to the costs associated with hiring and training new employees and the resources the agencies waste training those who leave in a short period of time. Unhappy employees can lead to reduced productivity and poor customer service.
DHS is tasked with protecting our country, and the workforce can’t afford to get distracted. But the employees’ morale has been in the dump, and DHS is not lifting a finger. In fact, it is doing the exact opposite. This is a self-inflicted wound.
At a recent hearing on why morale at DHS is still low 17 years after the department’s inception, AFGE, which represents nearly 100,000 employees at several DHS agencies, explained why.
While low morale plagues DHS as a whole, there is variation among the components of the department. Here is what’s happening at five DHS agencies:
1. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
FEMA employees are overworked and understaffed. They are often deployed to disaster zones without adequate recuperation time. The agency has refused to fill full-time, permanent positions. It has instead resorted to hiring temporary workers, resulting in difficulties in emergency management and preparedness.
2. Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
TSA has always ranked at or near the bottom in employee satisfaction survey. One of the main reasons is that the agency treats employees so poorly. Employees, for example, still do not have the right to appeal an unfair disciplinary action to a neutral, third party. The agency simply ignored provisions in the 2018 TSA Modernization Act that required collaboration between the agency and union reps to recommend reforms to TSA’s personnel management system, including appeals of adverse actions to a neutral third party. The Transportation Security Officer workforce is also not governed by Title 5 U.S.C, a code that applies to most federal employees and ensures fairness in important issues such as due process and fair grievance procedure. TSOs are among the lowest paid federal employees and should be put on the GS pay scale.
In addition, TSA drastically changed the terms of health insurance coverage, resulting in part-time TSOs having to pay much more for health care.
3. U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS)
USCIS employees have been overworked and understaffed. The agency has a large case backlog dating back to the 1990s, with managers requiring employees to meet higher performance numbers by working through lunch and breaks. Being rushed through their workload leads to stress among officers who feel their charge should be national security, not meeting arbitrary benchmarks.
Current management has also treated employees poorly. The agency and AFGE are currently negotiating a workplace contract, but management repeatedly asserts that the 14,000 employees in the bargaining unit can be easily replaced. They propose arbitrary discipline measures up to a point of termination for even small violations.
Acting Director Ken Cuccinelli has also politicized the agency’s mission and admonished employees for approving too many applications even though the employees were making determinations based on their professional training and the law. Serving as an asylum officer is a stressful job under the best circumstances. Being undermined by top management is a poor strategy that does not serve the workforce, our national security, or the underlying values of this country.
4. U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)
Last month a Coast Guard officer testified before Congress about race and gender discrimination and sexual harassment she endured. She publicly acknowledged others in the room, including USCG civilian workers represented by AFGE who reported similar discrimination, harassment, and retaliation. Fear of harassment and reprisal hurts morale, and its reverberations are experienced throughout the agency.
5. Federal Protective Service (FPS)
FPS is a law enforcement agency within DHS. According to its mission statement, FPS’s job is: To prevent, protect, respond to and recover from terrorism, criminal acts, and other hazards threatening the U.S. Government’s critical infrastructure, services, and the people who provide or receive them.
Yet the number of FPS law enforcement officers is lower now than it has been since 9/11. There are only 500 uniformed, non-supervisory law enforcement officers in the field, simply not enough to effectively carry out the mission of the agency. Instead of hiring more uniformed officers, the agency has created new non-law enforcement positions to do the work of this law enforcement agency.
Our union urges passage of H.R. 1433, The Department of Homeland Security Morale, Recognition, Learning and Engagement Act introduced by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). The bill would take significant steps to address the issues of low morale faced by DHS employees. Most importantly, it promotes employee involvement in the decisions that affect their work and their lives.
Our union supports our members’ work by making sure they have the resources they need to do their jobs serving the American public. If working for the greater good is your calling, join AFGE today! There is strength in numbers!