Workforce challenges linger at Federal Air Marshal Service

The Federal Air Marshal Service has taken steps to address workforce challenges, but still has room for improvement, witnesses told a House panel on Thursday.

During a hearing before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Management, Investigations and Oversight, FAMS Director Robert Bray told lawmakers the agency has addressed personnel concerns, and will continue efforts to enhance workers' on-the-job experience, training and quality of life.

In presenting an update to a January 2009 Government Accountability Office report, Stephen Lord, director of homeland security and justice issues at GAO, said significant policy reforms included improved check-in and boarding procedures to help protect marshal anonymity, better scheduling to increase downtime between missions and reduce health risks associated with frequent flying, and a lateral transfer program that allows marshals assignment flexibility.

Issues raised by committee members, however, highlighted lingering challenges for FAMS.

While 37 percent of new hires are veterans, the service lacks gender and racial diversity, particularly among Senior Executive Service positions, said Rep. Al Green, D-Texas. "All capable, competent, and qualified persons should have the opportunity to serve and [we should] have the numbers to reflect it," he said. Bray did not have statistics on diversity immediately available, but said he would give them to the committee later.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., D-N.J., raised concerns about retribution against whistleblowers. "Many positive policy and procedural changes that are going on within FAMS that deal with the workforce are brought to light by air marshals … yet many of these same air marshals found themselves enmeshed in legal battles," he said. Bray responded that FAMS is trying to engage workers on a regular basis by opening lines of communication and putting a stop to reprisals for speaking out.

Jon Adler, national president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, said discrimination against whistleblowers, a pay-for-performance system that prevents marshals from receiving in-step raises, and the lack of criminal investigator training are major factors in high FAMS attrition rates. Adler also pointed out that, despite improved boarding policies, some airlines continue to compromise marshal anonymity, and he encouraged the continued expansion of the FAMS workforce to mitigate problems and reduce stress on employees.

Some of these concerns could soon be addressed in legislation for reforms at FAMS' parent agency, the Transportation Security Administration. On July 9, the House Homeland Security Committee marked up and approved the 2009 Transportation Security Workforce Enhancement Act (H.R. 1881), which brings all TSA workers and air marshals under Title 5 of the U.S. Code. If passed, the legislation would move personnel toward the General Schedule pay system and allow them whistleblower protections, collective bargaining rights, and consistent annual leave and benefits.

"We are now in a maturation period for FAMS, and my goal is to work with our employees to continue to build the institution, create a more open, inclusive and responsive organization, and to continue the blueprint for the future," Bray said.

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