Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., advised CBP to place a greater emphasis on recruiting the right talent from the get go.

Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., advised CBP to place a greater emphasis on recruiting the right talent from the get go. Molly Riley/AP

One Agency Congress Actually Wants to Hire More People Is Failing in That Task

Lawmakers and advocates say staffing shortages are hurting morale at Customs and Border Protection.

Lawmakers chided Customs and Border Protection officials at a congressional hearing Tuesday, saying the agency has failed to boost its staffing levels despite a specific mandate from Congress to do so.

Congress authorized CBP to bring on 2,000 additional law enforcement officers in fiscal 2014, but to date the agency has filled just 60 percent of those jobs. The struggle to hire comes as the total number of applicants for CBP positions skyrocketed nearly 200 percent between fiscal years 2014 and 2015, from 40,000 to 115,000.

Linda Jacksta, CBP’s assistant commissioner in the Human Resources Management Office, told members of the House Homeland Security Committee’s panel on Border and Maritime Security the intentionally rigorous and laborious application process plays a major role in making it difficult to recruit and hire. The average time it takes to complete the hiring process for each individual is 18 months, Jacksta said.

“It’s still a year and half?” asked Rep. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., who chairs the border subcommittee. “Oh my gosh. Get on that.”

McSally advised CBP to place a greater emphasis on recruiting the right talent from the get-go.

“All your efforts are trying to get the right people into step one,” she counseled, “so you’re not wasting your time casting a huge net.”

Jacksta said while the application numbers appear large, 50 percent of potential employees drop out of the process after the entrance exam. She added CBP is the only federal agency with a congressional mandate that all front-line officers receive a polygraph test, which serves as a deterrent to many applicants. Some candidates view the 11-step application process and simply decide to pursue something else, Jacksta explained.

Tony Reardon, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents 25,000 CBP employees, said staffing shortages are contributing to poor morale. CBP placed 314 out of 320 federal agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s best places to work rankings. In addition to being overworked, forced temporary duty assignments are a major drag on employees, especially those with families.

“People are beaten up, they’re tired,” Reardon said.

While CBP officials said the forced TDY assignments were minimal, Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., said she had heard significant complaints about the practices from employees in her district.

“It is unacceptable when we are asking single moms, single dads to abandon their families for three months without any notice,” she said. TDY assignments generally last 90 days, but Reardon warned there are talks to increase them to 180.

As CBP has struggled to fill the initial 2,000 positions Congress authorized in 2014, Deputy Assistant Commissioner John Wagner said officials have identified a need for an additional 2,100 officers by 2017.

Jacksta said CBP is focused on increasing the quality and quantity of its hiring pool, reducing the time of the hiring process and cutting attrition. She highlighted the creation of “hiring hubs” that have helped reduce the time it takes to hire by 65 percent in the areas where they have been deployed. While she said the agency is looking at ways to reduce attrition, McSally complained it was “essentially treading water” in replacing those who leave. Reardon said CBP has ignored its flexibility to issue salary rates and performance awards, worsening the attrition problem.

CBP promised to find solutions to its staffing problems, wherever they might be.

“We’re leaving no stone unturned and we’re exploring all options,” Jacksta said.