Union calls for investigation into TSA turnover

The leader of a federal labor union called on Congress on Wednesday to investigate whether new pay and personnel policies at the Transportation Security Administration have contributed to rising attrition rates at the agency.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, pointed to a May report by TSA on its three-year-old pay-for-performance system -- the Performance Accountability and Standards System. The report, which Congress mandated last year, said the attrition rate for PASS-covered employees in fiscal 2007 was 21.2 percent, a 0.3 percent increase over fiscal 2006.

"I am deeply concerned by these high attrition rates at TSA, coupled with the low morale documented in the recent Department of Homeland Security employee survey results," Kelley said.

While the attrition rate at TSA has increased slightly since 2006, TSA said, the number was still slightly lower than the 23.7 percent attrition rate recorded in 2005, the year PASS was created. "There are no studies that look specifically at attrition rates as a direct correlation to PASS," the report said. "However, TSA has implemented numerous workforce incentives since 2005, including PASS, career progression, local hiring, and TSO retention and recognition incentives to attract and retain a talented workforce."

But Kelley said the pay and promotion system is widely viewed by employees as not fair, credible or transparent, and results in arbitrary ratings. She said NTEU members have told the union that attrition rates are even higher among the D band transportation security officers -- those employees the public interacts with daily at the airport and relies on to keep the skies safe.

TSA's report indicated that more employees received performance-based increases in 2007, with all employees receiving at least a raise equal to the governmentwide pay increase. The highest performers -- which made up 13 percent of the workforce -- earned the governmentwide raise, a 3.5 percent increase, and a $2,000 bonus. The majority of employees -- 44 percent -- received a rating of "exceeds standards," under which they received the governmentwide increase, a 2 percent increase and a $1,000 bonus.

But, Kelley said, PASS has allowed management too much discretion in determining pay, adding that pay raises are lower than for federal employees under the General Schedule. And because TSA gave raises to many employees in 2007 without increasing the amount of money available for pay increases employees were left with smaller overall bumps.

In March, TSA announced several changes to PASS, including developing new training standards and replacing performance ratings with numeric scores. TSA Administrator Kip Hawley also announced plans to tweak the agency's image testing, which measures screeners' abilities to detect certain images on screening devices.

TSA announced more updates to its image testing policy this week, vowing to align training more closely with actual procedures and give employees three chances to pass the test. Unions have cited serious concerns with the image testing, saying that screeners are often trained and tested using different standards or on different devices.

The American Federation of Government Employees on Wednesday praised the changes to image testing, but still noted some concerns with the policy.

Hampton Stennis, staff counsel for AFGE, said Thursday that one of the union's major concerns is that while the new policy gives screeners three opportunities to pass the test, it does not discount previous failed attempts under the old training and testing procedures. "We have lots of screeners who took the image test and failed it twice," he said. "They're only given one more opportunity with the new training."

Another concern, Stennis said, is screeners can fail the test by "overthreating," or citing concern with too many of the images on the screening devices. But, he said, if national security and the safety of travelers is TSA's mission, then the agency should not be concerned with screeners who are overly cautious.

"In three attempts to revise this test, it's still not giving these people a fair shake," he said. "People are tired of worrying about their jobs when they're supposed to be worrying about security."

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