TSA executive bonus program draws fire

A report this week that the Transportation Security Administration gave disproportionately large bonuses to executives compared to lower-level workers has prompted a flurry of criticism.

The Homeland Security Department's inspector general reported this week that TSA doled out about $1.45 million in bonuses at the end of 2003 to 88 executives. The report concluded that the average TSA award was about $16,500, which was higher than awards given out by any other agency.

In December 2003, TSA distributed monetary awards to executives ranging from $10,000 to $20,000 each, according to a list of the bonuses obtained by Government Executive. Stephen McHale, who resigned as the agency's deputy administrator in July, received a cash bonus of $20,000. David Stone, now the agency's chief, got $17,500. Stone served as a federal security director at Los Angeles International Airport until August 2003, when he became the agency's deputy chief of staff.

According to the Office of Personnel Management, 76 percent of TSA executives received a cash performance award. Of the almost 51,000 nonexecutive TSA employees, about 3 percent received an award or pay increase.

TSA officials defended the awards, saying the bonus program followed all laws and regulations and covered a two-year work period. "Given the hours and productivity of the workforce during this critical period, TSA believes the award expenditures were fully justified," agency spokesman Mark Hatfield said in a news release.

The agency, however, was unable to provide reliable or comprehensive data for awards given to employees in nonexecutive grades, the IG said. The data "suggests that a substantial inequity exists in [TSA's] performance recognition program between executive and nonexecutive employees," the IG wrote.

Several TSA screeners expressed anger at the IG's report.

"The majority of the monetary awards should have gone to TSA screeners, leads and supervisors based on their percentage of the TSA workforce," said a former screener. "That is what is called fair and equitable."

A screener from Newark International Airport in New Jersey called the bonuses "appalling" because they disproportionately went to executives.

A TSA official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that it does not appear that all executives who got a bonus had been with the agency for the two-year period the agency cited.

According to OPM, an average of 49 percent of executives at all federal agencies received cash awards in fiscal 2002, the latest year for which statistics are available. At TSA, 76 percent of executives received a cash performance award related to their fiscal 2002-2003 performance.

TSA did not spend the total amount it was authorized to award in bonuses, however, the IG found. The agency's fiscal 2003 award pool was $1.85 million, meaning that about $400,000 was not spent. TSA also stayed within executive performance award limitations, even though the agency was not legally obligated to, the IG said.

TSA said it is "inaccurate and misleading" to compare its bonuses to those given by much larger, Cabinet-level departments. The agency added that its executives are not eligible for the Presidential Rank Award, the government's highest award for civil servants.

Data showed that TSA distributed 2,001 performance awards and pay increases to 1,423 nonexecutive employees from August 2002 through February 2004. Out of 50,878 nonexecutive employees within the agency, only 3 percent received an award or pay increase.

"Compared to the 76 percent of eligible [executive] employees who received a monetary performance award, there is a wide disparity in the percentage of nonexecutive employees who received monetary awards," the IG wrote.

The IG also found that 38 percent of executives who received awards had no individual recommendation or justification. Their personnel files did not contain, as part of the performance evaluation process, a narrative showing how they met performance goals. Instead, boilerplate language was used repeatedly without change to address how the executives met or exceeded performance expectations.

TSA officials said the use of identical language for performance awards for federal security directors and assistant federal security directors was justified because both positions--regardless of location--have the same duties and responsibilities of providing day-to-day operational direction for federal security at U.S. airports.

The IG concluded, however, that boilerplate language defeats the purpose of an awards program that is intended to recognize and reward individual performance that surpasses that of colleagues.

TSA acknowledged that its "program infrastructure" for the first awards cycle was "inadequate." The agency said improvements will be made in the preparation and review of documentation to support bonuses in the coming years, as well as to provide equitable treatment to all employees.

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