Homeland Security's Next Mission: Self-Improvement

Tuesday, March 10, 2009; D04

When it comes to improving worker morale, Janet Napolitano may wonder what she's gotten herself into.

As President Obama's new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, she has inherited an agency that could be the target of a Henny Youngman joke:

"Take DHS -- please."

At a congressional hearing last week, you could easily get the impression the department is like a big pot of stew that just doesn't taste right.

The big issue for many employees with the greatest contact with the public -- those who staff airport security gates -- is the right to bargain collectively. The Transportation Security Administration workers who look through our bags, tell us to take off our shoes and wave electronic wands around our bodies are part of Homeland Security. They can join unions, but don't have the right to negotiate with the government over working conditions.

The two largest federal employee organizations don't like that. They made that clear to President Obama and again at last week's hearing.

"I want to use my time this morning to focus the attention of Congress and the White House on the urgent need to address the denial of collective bargaining rights and workplace protections to the approximately 40,000 men and women serving as transportation security officers at the Transportation Security Administration," said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees. "In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the 'fierce urgency of now' compels immediate action by the Obama administration and Congress on behalf of TSOs."

Sitting next to Gage was Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Her union also wants to win collective bargaining rights for the transportation security officers and one day the NTEU and the AFGE may be duking it out to see who will win that opportunity.

But for now they are united in an attempt to win the same bargaining rights many other federal employees have. Kelley told the committee why she believes those rights are needed:

"TSA has the dubious distinction of having the lowest morale of all federal agencies. It has the highest attrition rate and the highest injury rate. TSA employees face a hostile work environment. Our union officers have been demoted or moved to less desirable areas for trying to get employee disputes resolved. TSOs are forced to take annual leave when they clearly are eligible for Family and Medical Leave. Jobs are not posted; they are filled by TSOs friendly to management. TSOs routinely are at the airport 11 to 14 hours a day and get paid only for eight, due to split-shift assignments. Staffing levels at some airports are so low that TSOs are working extra shifts, not getting breaks, and working on their days off."

But employees have seen some improvement, according to Kimberly Kraynak, a behavioral detection officer at Pittsburgh International Airport. "Little by little things are getting better, and things are headed in the right direction," said Kraynak, who also is president of the American Federation of Government Employees Local 332.

DHS has had a peculiar set of circumstances that at least partially explains its tough times with its employees. It's a new department, established in 2003. It was formed by combining 22 separate agencies and 200,000 employees from those various places into a single, Cabinet-level entity.

"Since it's inception, six years ago this week," Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, said at the hearing, "the Department of Homeland Security has faced a series of personnel challenges."

One of those challenges is the comings and goings of the department's top personnel officials. "To make matters worse, the workforce has been led by four different chief human capital officers over the past six years, causing confusion and instability," Thompson added.

And almost three-fourths of the department's career executives left from fiscal year 2004 through 2007, Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service, said at the hearing.

Carol Bonosaro, president of the Senior Executives Association, told committee members that one reason career executives leave is dissatisfaction with the department's pay-for-performance system. A long-standing complaint of senior executives in government concerns a pay system that actually allows lower-ranking employees to earn more than the executives.

One way managers can improve their workplace, according to Kraynak: Listen to what employees want and need.

Contact Joe Davidson at [email protected]

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