Low pay biggest driver of turnover among TSA frontline workers, panel finds

The Transportation Security Administration this week vowed to improve its pay, promotion, hiring and other policies that support its frontline workforce, after a blue-ribbon panel identified a series of longstanding and difficult challenges.

“This marks an important milestone for TSA as we seek to make the agency a better place to work,” agency Administrator David Pekoske said Monday in a statement. “We’re not looking backward or placing blame. This report will give us what we need to improve, and I want to thank our frontline personnel for giving us the feedback we need for some long overdue advancements.”

The panel finished its work this month, and TSA is finalizing a strategy to address the group’s recommendations. Pekoske said the agency is also beginning to review its current hiring process, human capital IT systems, employee relations and training and HR field support, as well as its pay and promotion policies.

There was widespread agreement at a House Homeland Security Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee hearing earlier this week that TSA needs to do something to better pay its security officers (TSOs).

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Entry-level TSOs typically begin at the “D pay band,” where salaries range from $28,668-to-$40,954, according to TSA. Security officers have the potential for a promotion to an “E pay band,” where salaries range from $32,920-to-$47,084.

But members and witnesses largely disagreed over how TSA should address them.

TSA’s blue-ribbon panel recommended the agency implement targeted pay raises to TSOs. The panel, after a series of interviews and 36 focus groups with frontline security officers, said pay was the greatest issue driving high turnover at the agency.

In 2016 and 2017, TSA hired more than 19,300 new officers but lost more than 15,500 TSOs, according to an April report from the Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general. Though TSA’s attrition rate of about 17% is roughly equivalent with other federal agencies, it’s much higher for TSA’s part-time frontline workforce. Nearly 27 percent of part-time TSOs left the agency in fiscal 2017, according to the IG.

TSA’s blue-ribbon panel explicitly advised against adding TSOs to the General Schedule, the pay scale that covers roughly 75 percent of the federal workforce.

“The pay definitely needs to be addressed,” Jeff Neal, senior vice president for ICF and a member of the TSA panel, told the House subcommittee Tuesday. “This is a significant problem for the agency. But the General Schedule is too blunt an instrument to do it.”

Congress, however, is considering a move of TSOs to the General Schedule and Title 5 of the U.S. Code. House Homeland Security Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Appropriations Chairwoman Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) in February introduced the Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act.

Collective bargaining rights for TSOs would expand, and the workforce would have access to the full union grievance and appeal process before the Merit Systems Protection Board if the bill cleared Congress. The bill would also add TSOs to the GS pay scale.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents the vast majority of frontline TSA workers, described the General Schedule as a “proven pay scale” and questioned why Congress would keep TSOs under a personnel system that is “separate and unequal” from the system that manages other employees at the agency.

The GS scale keeps working for all other federal employees,” AFGE National President J. David Cox said. “It seems to be TSA is the one that’s having the greatest turnover. If we have a wheel that’s working, why not use it [and] put them on the GS pay scale until we can figure out something better?”

Yet Neal said the General Schedule has the potential to do more harm than good. TSOs in some high-demand airports could end up with little to no pay raises, while other security officers could get a larger bump.

TSA had roughly 61,000 employees at the end of fiscal 2017 and more than half are entry-level security officers, likely due to the agency’s high turnover that year. TSA spent nearly $75 million to hire and train about 9,000 TSOs in 2017, according to John Kelly, DHS’ acting inspector general. About 20% of TSA’s new employees left within six months of being hired.

To quickly address TSO pay challenges, Congress could appropriate more specific funding to TSO  raises, the panel said. TSA already has authorities to distribute targeted raises under the Aviation and Transportation Security Act.

“There is a relationship between private sector security guard pay and turnover among TSOs,” Neal said. “E-band TSOs are not paid well and when private security guards are paid well, airports suffer very high turnover. We can do some modeling that would show where labor dollars could be applied that would actually reduce turnover. Some of that obviously would be new money, but once you got started with that a good chunk of that $7[5] million a year that’s spent on recruiting and training new employees could be applied to TSO pay.”

Tuesday’s hearing came as the Department of Homeland Security plans to divert a few hundred TSA employees to the southern border to address staffing shortages at other DHS subcomponents. These plans raised sharp criticism from Democrats on the committee and the House Oversight and Reform Committee, which wrote to Pekoske about its concerns earlier this week.

“An obvious and enormous problem with this plan is that TSA employees already have full time jobs, and the agency needs them to fulfill their critical mission at our nation’s airports, as well as to address vulnerabilities identified by the Government Accountability Office and the inspector general of [DHS],” committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) and subcommittee Chairman Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) wrote.

The oversight committee also requested a wide variety of information about TSA’s plans to move employees to the southern border.

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