Better pay drove law officers to TSA, report says

More than 300 federal law enforcement officers in the Washington area quit their jobs to join the Transportation Security Administration during fiscal 2002, according to a new report from the General Accounting Office.

Nearly 4,000 uniformed police officers work for the federal government in the Washington area and 599 of them resigned during fiscal 2002, GAO found in its investigation of employee turnover at 13 Washington area federal law enforcement agencies. More than half of those who quit became federal air marshals with TSA.

"Federal air marshals are not limited to the grade and pay step structure of the federal government's General Schedule," GAO said in its report (03-658). "As a result, TSA has been able to offer air marshal recruits higher compensation and more flexible benefit packages than many other federal police forces."

GAO cited various reasons for the turnover, including better pay and retirement benefits, less overtime and increased responsibility. Starting pay in September 2002 for entry-level police officers ranged from $28,801 for the National Institutes of Health Police and the Federal Protective Service, to $39,427 for the Capitol Police, Library of Congress Police and Supreme Court Police forces. In its effort to get a fully staffed air marshal corps up and running quickly, Congress granted TSA flexibility to set salaries. The fledgling agency uses a pay-banding system, and starting pay for an entry-level air marshal begins at $35,100. However, air marshals also are able to earn "law enforcement availability pay" for being on-call 24 hours a day, a benefit that is not available to federal police officers. Unlike overtime pay, law enforcement availability pay counts toward retirement.

Despite the gap in pay, the officers all generally perform the same types of duties, such as protecting people and property, patrolling areas on foot, and monitoring building entrances and exits. All of the law enforcement officers also have the authority to make arrests.

Most of the police forces surveyed by GAO said they encountered trouble when trying to recruit officers to replace those employees lost to TSA. According to GAO, low pay, the high cost of living in Washington, more attractive retirement benefits at other agencies and difficulty in completing the application and background process contributed to poor recruitment. But GAO found that none of the police forces had taken advantage of available recruitment tools, such as recruitment bonuses and student loan repayments.

GAO concluded that the increased turnover among the 13 police forces may ebb now that TSA is up and running.

In a written response to the report, Office of Personnel Management Director Kay Coles James expressed concern about the information compiled by GAO.

"The report lacks substantive analysis and comparisons of the pay systems involved, including the types and levels of duties and the laws and rules governing the pay systems, salary structures and pay progression strategies," James wrote.

The personnel director recommended that GAO clearly state in the report and accompanying letter to Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, who requested the report, that the information gathered by GAO not be used as the basis of any federal law enforcement officer pay and benefits reform effort.

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