The starting pay is about $34,000 a year with no automatic pay raises based on tenure. They are on the front line in the battle against terrorism but don’t carry a gun. Their employer is routinely the punchline of jokes on late-night television shows.
Such is the life of a TSA screener.
“Every now and then, we get thanked by the public, but for the most part, it’s a pretty thankless job,” said Bobby Orozco Jr., a Transportation Security Administration screener at Los Angeles International Airport.
With U.S. airports handling record crowds this summer, airlines and federal lawmakers say they want to improve morale and reduce the unusually high turnover rate among the nation’s TSA screeners to ensure security lines are well-staffed during peak travel periods.
Lines that kept travelers waiting for two hours and longer this spring even persuaded airlines to donate money and workers to help TSA speed up the queues. The slowdowns prompted the Republican Party to call for TSA reform in its party platform this summer.
The attrition rate among full-time TSA screeners has been growing over the past few years and is especially high among part-timers, who represent about 1 in 5 TSA screeners.
The TSA recently was ranked nearly last among all federal agencies in a job satisfaction survey.
Without a fix, travelers can expect continued staffing shortages at the TSA and long lines at airport screening checkpoints.
“The system is broken, no doubt about that,” said Orozco, who is also president of his local union.
Lawmakers and aviation experts have offered two solutions: Either give airport screeners a raise and improve their employee protection rights or turn more airports over to private security firms, which have a reputation for happier workers and a lower turnover rate.
The TSA employs about 42,500 screeners, down about 10% from 47,000 in 2012, according to the organization. Meanwhile, the number of passengers screened at U.S. airports is expected to reach 740 million this year, up about 16% from 638 million in 2012, the agency said.
“There are not enough transportation security officers, and that is very evident,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners.
One reason for the decline in screeners is that Congress cut the TSA budget, assuming that more travelers would sign up for programs such as TSA PreCheck, which offers expedited screening lines for frequent fliers who pass a government background check.
Another reason for the drop is the turnover rate, according to union officials who represent TSA workers. They blame low pay, difficult working conditions and being denied the full rights given to other federal employees.
TSA representatives declined to comment on the subject, citing current negotiations with the union. But in testimony before Congress, TSA administrator Peter Neffenger has stressed the need for extra training to address morale problems.
“I have worked to set up our frontline officers for success through improved training, enhanced protocols and advancing technology,” he told a congressional panel in June.
The TSA was created after the 9/11 attacks, replacing private security officers hired by individual airlines and overseen by the federal government.
But Congress initially didn’t give TSA workers the same employee rights as other federal workers, such as the right to unionize, rely on collective bargaining for employee contracts or appeal disciplinary actions to a third-party board.
It wasn’t until 2011 that TSA administrators allowed airport screeners to join a union. But TSA workers still have fewer rights than other federal workers, including other security and law enforcement staffers.
TSA officers, for example, don’t get regular pay raises based solely on tenure. TSA screeners now get raises based only on performance and promotions. As a result, a TSA officer who has five or 10 years of experience can earn the same as a newly hired TSA officer.
“You have folks that have been here since 2002 and are making the same amount as someone who has been here about a year,” Orozco said. “That doesn’t add up.”
In addition, new hires start as probationary screeners for two years, during a time that most maintain their starting salary. Orozco and Cox say many quit before they complete the probationary period.
The number of full-time TSA screeners who leave their jobs voluntarily has been on the rise in the past five years, increasing to 9.5% of TSA screeners in 2015 from 4.2% in 2010, according to a congressional budget report. Among part-time TSA workers, the rate has jumped to 19% in 2015 from 13% in 2010, the federal report says.
In contrast, the voluntary attrition rate among all federal workers is 6%, according to federal studies. The attrition rate among private airport screeners may be as low as 8.5%, according to government studies.
The high rate among part-time workers is a concern because they make up 23% of all TSA screeners, according to the organization.
Job satisfaction at the TSA is also a problem.
Efforts to give TSA screeners the same employee privileges as other federal workers have failed.
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation in 2009 to upgrade employee rights and privileges for TSA staffers, but her bill failed to get a vote of the full House.
A government analysis of the bill estimated that the salary for most TSA screeners would increase by $1,700 a year. For the entire agency, the change would have increased the budget by $100 million for 2010 alone, according to the analysis.
Opponents of Lowey’s bill complained about the added cost and said giving TSA screeners the same employee rights of other federal workers reduces the flexibility to deploy screeners in the face of terrorist threats.
“There is concern that this flexibility and security would be hampered in the event of the next plot if the administrator is not able to quickly make changes to screening operations to respond to an impending threat,” Republican members of the Homeland Security Committee, led by Rep. Peter T. King (R-N.Y.), said in a statement about their opposition to the bill.
In February, Lowey teamed up with Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) to introduce another bill to upgrade the employee status of TSA workers. Like the previous bill, the legislation would give TSA the same employee rights as other federal workers but withholds the right to strike.
“It is time for Congress to come together and enact legislation that will grant these front line security workers the rights and benefits that they deserve,” Thompson said in a statement. “These changes will increase security and will lead to an improved workforce with better morale.”
Thompson’s bill has 72 co-sponsors, all Democrats. The legislation awaits debate in two congressional committees.
“It’s not an easy job,” Cox said. “You’ve got to be keen and focused every second of the day, no matter what you are doing.”
Another idea proposed by TSA critics is to allow private security contractors to screen passengers and luggage at more airports, with oversight by the TSA.
But critics say federal agencies have made the process too difficult for individual airports to outsource screening to private contractors.
Only 21 of the nation’s 450 largest commercial airports rely on private contractors for passenger and luggage screening. The largest of those airports is San Francisco International Airport.
Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the Reason Foundation Public Policy Institute, said he would like to see more studies focusing on the airports with private screening to help determine whether they do a more efficient job that the TSA.
“We need a larger data set in order to draw conclusions,” he said.
At least one study supports using private screeners at more airports.
A 2011 report by the congressional staff of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure estimated that the turnover rate of screeners at the San Francisco airport was 8.5% and that the initial training and recruitment cost at the airport was almost half that of the TSA. The report also said each San Francisco airport private security agent screens 65% more passengers a year than TSA screeners at LAX.
“Taxpayers would save $1 billion over five years if the nation’s top 35 airports operated as efficiently as SFO does,” the study concluded.
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