DHS leaders aim to turn around poor morale

September 18, 2007

The last two employee satisfaction surveys conducted by the government have shown the newest department — Homeland Security — as the most disgruntled of the bunch.

The latest survey, conducted last year and released in January, reported that only 57 percent of Homeland Security employees said they were satisfied with their jobs — far below the 67.5 percent figure governmentwide.

But it was unclear where exactly within the department the problems really lay— until now.
More detailed survey data, released to Federal Times under a Freedom of Information Act request, shows employee perceptions of their jobs and work vary widely from one DHS agency to the next.

For some agencies and offices — such as US-VISIT, the Coast Guard and the Secret Service — Homeland Security is seen as a place where good performers are rewarded for their hard work, the survey shows. Managers and employees there communicate freely; there are ample opportunities for advancement and training; and agency leadership is trusted, employees told the Office of Personnel Management, which conducted the survey.

But at some divisions — most notably, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Science and Technology directorate (S&T) — employees fear retaliation, don’t respect their leaders and are convinced that whatever is getting some people promoted, it’s not merit.

And having the worst morale at Homeland Security has TSA and S&T officials worried.
“We’re absolutely concerned,” said Elizabeth Kolmstetter, TSA’s director of human capital development. “We take all this very seriously.”

Kolmstetter said the high-pressure nature of being an airport security screener is one challenge.
“From the onset, we knew it would be a difficult job,” Kolmstetter said. “It’s demanding physically. Folks are having to pat down strangers and put their hands in luggage where there could be a bomb. The constant stress of speed and quality weighs on them.”

But Kolmstetter — as well as Science and Technology chief of staff Brad Buswell — said Homeland Security’s management is listening and responding to employee complaints.

Kolmstetter said TSA’s 13-month-old Performance Accountability and Standards System (PASS), which distributes pay raises and bonuses based on how well screeners perform, is addressing employees’ concerns about how performance is measured and rewarded.

PASS started in August 2006, just as OPM wrapped up its survey of more than 220,000 federal employees. Kolmstetter said this year, 39 percent of the agency’s roughly 42,000 screeners were judged to have exceeded expectations and received 3 percent to 5 percent raises and bonuses of $2,000 to $3,000.

She also said that the creation of a second pay band for nonsupervisory screeners also improved morale.
“That’s gone over well with the [transportation security officers, or airport screeners],” Kolmstetter said. “Before, you couldn’t get a promotion until you went into a supervisory role.”

But Kim Kraynak, who is the women’s coordinator for the American Federation of Government Employees Local 1 and also a screener at Pittsburgh International Airport, said PASS has instead made morale worse.
Under the PASS system, screeners are tested for their job skills 10 times a year, as opposed to once a year as was the case before PASS, Kraynak said. And if screeners don’t use proper procedures or respond properly to simulated encounters with passengers during the tests, they could fail. Screeners are fired if they fail two tests, Kraynak said.

“You used to be stressed out once per year,” Kraynak said. “Now you’re stressed out all year long. If you have a bad day you can be fired. It’s no way to live.”

Kraynak said she believes TSA Administrator Kip Hawley and other agency leaders are trying to improve matters. But she said for morale to improve, screeners should be placed on the General Schedule system.
Most importantly, Kraynak said, TSA should stop splitting shifts. Now screeners are often made to work two five-hour shifts a day with an unpaid two-hour break in the middle.

The split shifts — combined with many screeners’ lengthy commutes — means they have little down time, she said.
But Kolmstetter said TSA’s poor results don’t mean screeners are about to leave en masse. The survey shows TSA employees have an extremely strong sense of purpose: 92 percent said their work is important, 78 percent said they and their co-workers cooperate to get the job done, and nearly 75 percent said they like their work.

And Kolmstetter said attrition rates, while still high, are declining from 24 percent in fiscal 2005, to 21 percent last year, to 19.6 percent in the first eight months of fiscal 2007.

“There are a lot of people committed to protecting the nation against terrorist attack,” Kolmstetter said. “We can’t lose sight of that.”

Fixing poor morale at the S&T office

Jay Cohen, undersecretary for Science and Technology, has made improving communication between management and employees one of his top priorities since taking over the directorate in August 2006, Buswell said. He held his first all-hands meeting the day after he was sworn in, and has held follow-up meetings about every two months.

Science and Technology employees were dissatisfied with their training opportunities. To solve that, Cohen started a Career Progression Planning program this spring that helps employees figure out where they want to be in five to 10 years and what training they need.

And Science and Technology is reaching out to employees’ families to improve morale at home. Cohen held an all-hands meeting in July at Washington’s National Zoo and invited families, Buswell said.
The sunny side of DHS

It’s a different story at the department’s US-VISIT, or U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology, program where employees were far and away more happy about their jobs. The program’s director Bob Mocny attributes some of that to the office’s mission: using technology such as biometrics to track foreigners entering and leaving the U.S. and, hopefully, catching terrorists before they can strike.
“It’s the cutting edge of technology and policy, and we’re catching people with criminal histories who have changed their identities,” Mocny said. “It’s exciting, and it attracts people who get bored if they’re not challenged.”

US-VISIT employees get the chance to work regularly with other Homeland Security components, agencies such as the FBI and State Department, and foreign governments, which shows them how important their work is, Mocny said.

US-VISIT’s small size — it employs only about 95 people — helps Mocny manage and stay in touch with his employees. He tries to walk around all the floors at US-VISIT’s Arlington, Va., office once a day and holds regular all-hands meetings.

“There’s a feeling of inclusion,” Mocny said. “It helps to see your leadership taking an interest.”

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