Crowds of restless passengers waiting endlessly in TSA lines is becoming a major issue as the summer travel season heats up. Every newspaper, TV station, and radio show in the U.S. is reporting variations of the same problem: Passengers are waiting too long, they’re missing flights, and people are angry.
It’s clear now that the Transportation Security Administration is short thousands of officers at peak travel season, and more officers are needed to get people screened quickly and efficiently. But that’s just one side of the story.
To make matters worse, Transportation Security Officers are leaving the agency in droves due to low pay, unpredictable schedules, and fewer rights at work than any other employees of the federal government. This has created a classic “bath tub problem” where employees are leaving too fast to be replaced with new hires. And unless something significant is done to improve retention, lines will only keep growing longer.
The statistics paint a clear picture: TSA Officer attrition more than doubled between 2010 and 2014. In 2010, 373 people joined the agency while 4,644 left – an all-time high for the already resource-strapped agency. Last year wasn’t much better, with barely any improvement in employees retained. TSA is now 6,000 officers below its 2011 peak, and there are no signs of the losses slowing down.
It’s no mystery why TSA cannot hold onto the employees it already has. Many Transportation Security Officers earn less than $15 an hour. They are subject either to constant forced overtime or else denied full-time schedules when they want them. Worst of all, they lack most of the basic rights granted to all other federal employees. These burdens are borne while they’re asked to work in a fast-paced, stressful environment where the cost of failure could be life or death. New hires in recent years have been limited overwhelmingly to part-time schedules, and almost all of these workers leave at the prospect of full-time work elsewhere. With all of these disadvantages, it’s no wonder TSA Officers can’t leave the agency fast enough.
Hiring thousands more Transportation Security Officers is a start, but retaining the ones we already have is critical to a permanent solution to long waits. Here are three things Congress can do today to improve officer retention:
First, Congress needs to allow TSA to bring on new hires as full-time employees. Currently, new TSA Officers are only allowed to be hired for part-time schedules, and they must wait an indefinite length of time to earn full-time status, if ever. Retaining talent is much harder when there’s no assurance of full-time work and benefits. After all, no one can blame these workers for grabbing other full-time jobs to pay their bills and put food on the table.
Next on Congress’ agenda should be immediately granting TSA Officers the same basic rights at work as every other federal employee. Right now they’re stuck under an inferior pay system that allows their boss to deny or reduce their annual pay raise for something as petty as using sick leave. TSA Officers also have inferior bargaining rights compared to other federal law enforcement officers in Border Patrol, ICE, and Federal Prisons. Transportation Security Officers can even be fired due to medical symptoms have no effect on their work performance, and the workers have no opportunity to appeal such firings. Granting TSOs the same rights and protections as other federal employees will give officers a good reason to stay for the long haul.
Finally, Congress needs to lift the arbitrary workforce cap it placed on full-time hires at TSA. As it stands now, there can be no more than 45,000 full-time TSA Officers, so the agency relied on part-time work to fill the void. Creating new opportunities for officers to join the full-time workforce would increase applicants and retain those already waiting in part-time employment.
Long lines and missed flights are an embarrassment that can easily be avoided. The policies necessary to end the delays are clear. It’s now up to Congress to act.
J. David Cox Sr. is national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents more than 670,000 federal and D.C. government employees nationwide, including TSA officers.