TSA Screeners Face Declining Morale, Other Problems

Most of the screeners interviewed blamed increased security measures and managerial missteps for putting strains on their workforce.

Every screener HSToday.us spoke to said the agency needed more funding for better equipment to speed up processing of passengers and more screeners to lighten the workload.

The Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) Inspector General (IG) stated two years ago in its report on an audit of staffing problems that TSA did not develop or use any formula-based model for its staffing decisions, and that this had resulted in many over or understaffed airports.

A more recent IG audit conducted this spring found there were still problems, including “insufficient staffing at passenger checkpoints" - a problem TSA insiders, other federal sources, and authorities say continues to be a problem.

TSA officials say they are "aggressively" working to correct "all issues" that "may" be impacting screener and other employee morale and responsibilities.

The IG audit found “low employee morale continues to be an issue at some airports, contributing to TSA’s 17 percent voluntary attrition rate,” adding, “more than half of the employees we interviewed described the agency’s efforts to educate them on the various initiatives available to address their workplace concerns as ‘inadequate.’”

As a consequence, TSA insiders and other authorities said, screeners’ morale has suffered – and continues to suffer.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson had told TSA chief Edmund "Kip" Hawley more than two years ago that this situation is "troubling,” adding, "I strongly believe that swift action to remedy this situation would help to improve” TSA employees’ morale.

DHS IG Richard Skinner noted the importance of addressing screener morale: "Given their frustration, employees may be distracted and less focused on their security and screening responsibilities.”

Indications of screeners’ distraction, focus, and frustration have begun to be seen, and is in stark contrast to what HSToday.us and other federal investigators have found at the nearly dozen major metropolitan airports where screeners were observed three years ago. Then, screeners were courteous, polite, respectful, and appeared to be well trained. HSToday.us encountered few screeners taking shortcuts to speed up the processing of air travelers.

Since then, however, more and more screeners’ attitudes observed at airports across the country have shown marked chinks in their professionalism – from the way passengers are treated to screening mechanics. This isn’t to disparage the entirety of the TSA workforce, which by and large is comprised of patriotic, hard-working men and women, but rather to say that problems like those found by DHS’s IG do indeed appear to be causing enough stress that it is affecting conduct and focus on security.

Late last year, investigators for Congress’ investigative arm, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), disclosed that they repeatedly were able to smuggle through dozens of airport screening checkpoints liquid bomb and other explosives components that, once on board a plane, could be assembled in as little as ten minutes. If successfully detonated, these explosives could potentially cause a “catastrophic” explosion.

The GAO investigators’ report and a subsequent congressional hearing tended to blame problems on management, information sharing, and training.

HSToday.us earlier reported finding lax security screening at airports like JFK – including screening of international travelers arriving in the US for connecting flights - especially during peak traffic when there clearly weren’t enough screeners available or their were equipment break-downs that closed screening lines, forcing arriving passengers to be funneled into only a few lines.

Meanwhile, observations by HSToday.us and claims made by insiders to HSToday.us indicate increasing problems with more and more screeners’ attitudes. Whether these screeners’ consternation is due to the stress that’s been brought on by what the IG found, or something else, insiders tell HSToday.us it’s a growing problem.

The DHS IG stated that “some employees at one airport said that ongoing workplace issues, such as a hostile work environment and the inconsistent application of TSA’s standard operating procedures, were a major contributing factor to low employee morale, despite reporting these concerns to the Ombudsman during a prior site visit.”

The new IG report states that the effectiveness of initiatives TSA has taken to address its declining morale problem - including establishing the Office of the Ombudsman, the Integrated Conflict Management System, and the National Advisory Council - to help identify and address its employees’ workplace concerns isn’t working.

“Despite the positive steps taken … TSA could improve its initiatives by establishing more effective internal systems, processes, and controls,” the IG found, adding, “specifically, the agency has not provided sufficient tools and guidance regarding the structures, authorities, and oversight responsibilities of each initiative, and has faced challenges in communicating the details of each to its workforce.”

The report noted “that low employee morale is a factor contributing to employee turnover, a relationship that was confirmed during our interviews with more than 300 security screeners. Our findings suggest that increasing the effectiveness of the three initiatives reviewed will help reduce workplace conflict and employee dissatisfaction, thereby improving individual and collective morale among the screening workforce.”

The IG stated that “the report provides background on the frequency with which TSA employees have filed formal complaints relative to other federal agencies in order to help establish the historical scope of TSA’s challenges in this area.

TSA’s “employees have expressed their concerns about how the agency operates by historically filing formal complaints at rates higher than other federal agencies of comparable size … TSA employees at some airports have contacted the Congress, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, and the media to report their frustrations with local management’s lack of resolution of ongoing workplace problems.”

The IG determined that “by not successfully addressing … longstanding workplace issues, [TSA’s] proactive programs may provide false hope and have the unanticipated effects of heightening employee dissatisfaction and further undermining morale. Given their frustration, employees may be distracted and less focused on their security and screening responsibilities. These factors could in turn adversely affect TSA’s overall transportation security mission by increasing turnover and decreasing workforce stability.

The IG stated “TSA generally concurred with the recommendations in the report,” and “fully or partly concurred with five of the [IG’s remedial] recommendations and has taken action to resolve four, which will remain open until implementation is completed. The agency did not provide sufficient information on its actions reported for one recommendation and … did not concur with the IG conclusion that the Office of the Ombudsman would be a more effective resource to employees if independently structured in the organization.”

However, TSA administrator Hawley wrote in an agency response to the IG's findings that “the report … failed to recognize the scale, depth and leading-edge quality of what TSA has undertaken: Becoming a model that other agencies are benchmarking, providing multiple places and ways that individuals can raise and obtain assistance in resolving concerns, and making considerable progress in laying the foundation for the maturation of the system.”

Hawley responded to the new audit report declaring that it relies on disgruntled screeners at a few airports. "This results in flawed conclusions," Hawley wrote in his response to the audit report.

Statistics on formal complaints that have been filed with the US Office of Special Counsel reviewed by HSToday.us appear to support the IG’s audit’s conclusions.

Meanwhile, unions say TSA screeners need more time for training and more transparency in the evaluations process.

"This report, in its heartbreaking entirety, sums up the nightmare that has served to be the day-to-day workplace experience for most of TSA's federal airport screening inspector workforce," American Federation of Government Employees TSA Local 1 spokesman A.J. Castilla wrote in a statement to the TSA employees it represents.

TSA Local 1 president Tim Kriescher was quoted saying he does not think morale is improving because too many TSA employees continue to work long shifts and their injury rate is higher than many other occupations.

Job satisfaction at TSA markedly improved for a while, according to TSA's 2006 organizational satisfaction survey, which found 59 percent of employees were satisfied or very satisfied with their jobs, up from 35 percent in 2004.

But the 2007 DHS employee survey disclosed that many Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) are dissatisfied with policies, practices, and management, and that this dissatisfaction is causing low morale.

For instance:

21.9 percent said creativity and innovation are rewarded;
26.9 percent said they received recognition for doing a good job;

26.7 percent said they are satisfied with the policies and practices of their senior leaders; and
24.4 percent believed their leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce.

DHS Inspector General Skinner’s office made six recommendations to the TSA chief “to provide employees with sufficient tools, including clear guidance and better communication, on the structures, authorities, and oversight responsibilities of the initiatives we reviewed.”

TSA recently announced that it is looking to contract a training company to manage its "Specialized Security Training" (SST) program – the program that has educated 45,000-plus airport screeners since 2002. But critics say TSA’s reliance on several outside contractors and in-house personnel to conduct its broad ranging training programs has led to widespread inconsistency in screening practices at airports, as HSToday.us earlier raised questions about.

Meanwhile, a separate report of an IG investigation of TSA’s National Deployment Force (NDF) - which deploys TSOs to support airport screening operations during emergencies, seasonal demands, or other circumstances requiring more staffing resources than are regularly available – found that “since November 2003 … TSA has maintained a deployment force program to support the temporary deployment of federal screeners to commercial airports that require screening resources not routinely available. However, neither procedures to ensure the integrity and accountability over deployment resources, nor a decision making process that defines the criteria and priority for handling requests for screener assistance had been established.”

“Program managers responsible for overall NDF operations said that during the inception of the deployment program, there was no way to track employees who had been deployed, and screeners could slip through the cracks and even overstay their deployment,” the IG report stated. “In the absence of internal controls to track and document the use of NDF resources, we were unable to determine deployment cost and the rationale for deployment decisions for Fiscal Years 2004 through 2006.”

While DHS’s IG was unable to determine the rationale for TSO deployment decisions made during fiscal years 2004, 2005, and 2006, it found that “NDO officials said from 2003 to 2007 there was no formal process to manage deployment decisions. They referred to this time period as ‘the wild west’ since there were no operational directives for the NDF, and deployment decisions were largely based on individual relationships between NDF staff and the requesting Federal Security Directors (FSD).”

The IG reported that “NDF staff said that requests for screener assistance were rarely denied since it was assumed that FSDs would not exaggerate their need for screener assistance, and NSF staff did not possess the experience to make denial decisions. In addition, there were no methods to validate the need for additional assistance, and no means to determine what airport management was doing to remedy staffing issues.”

Continuing, the IG found that “NDO [National Deployment Office] officials also said that FSDs were able to use the NDF program as a cost-saving tool since the additional temporary staff did not affect the receiving airport’s operating budget.”

“In the absence of a deployment decision making process during this period,” the IG report stated, “TSOs at airports we visited also expressed opinions about a process that resulted in favored TSOs being given assignments to the more desirable deployment locations. TSOs believed that favoritism was a result of friendships between NDF staff and TSOs. Many TSOs said this favoritism had a negative effect on their morale.”

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