TSA agents deals rush of holiday travelers at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 21, 2023 in Los Angeles, Calif.

TSA agents deals rush of holiday travelers at Los Angeles International Airport on Dec. 21, 2023 in Los Angeles, Calif. Irfan Khan / Getty Images

GAO says TSA's employee engagement problems linger, despite some improvements

Though the Transportation Security Administration experienced an uptick in employee engagement following the implementation of major pay increases last year, leaders have not addressed other factors contributing to low workforce morale.

The Transportation Security Administration isn’t doing enough to address its longstanding employee engagement problem, according to a government watchdog agency.

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday issued a report finding that while the recent move by the Biden administration to abandon the agency’s much-maligned personnel system, which severely underpaid most transportation security officers, to a new system modeled after the General Schedule—which led to 30% pay increases, better job protections and full federal sector collective bargaining rights—has begun to improve engagement as measured by the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, it will not serve as a panacea.

Specifically, GAO said other issues driving engagement, including training and professional development, work-life balance and poor performance management practices, remain un- or under-addressed by agency leadership.

“While TSA has identified issues that negatively affected employee engagement, they have not consistently identified the root causes of these issues or taken steps to fully address them,” GAO wrote. “As a result, low engagement remains. For example, our interviews with TSOs and analysis of TSA survey results found that dissatisfaction persists among TSOs regarding how TSA manages and recognizes employee performance. By identifying the root causes of dissatisfaction and implementing steps to address them, TSA could better target their actions to improve employee engagement and result in a more effective workforce.”

TSA, for its part, has conducted hundreds of focus groups with employees over the last several years, culminating in the creation of employee engagement action plans agency-wide and local action plans at individual airports. But those plans have not consistently addressed all major drivers of employee dissatisfaction, at times due to competing priorities, the agency told GAO.

While last year’s implementation of sizeable pay raises as the agency moved toward a General Schedule-like pay system led to the agency’s employee engagement score in the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey to tick up 4 percentage points—larger than the Homeland Security Department overall increase of 3 points—in 2023, problems with how the agency rewards performance persist, particularly a perception of favoritism by managers.

“In its 2023 EEAP, TSA found that employees felt recognition and award programs failed to operate effectively, lacked integrity due to favoritism and TSOs felt a lack of commitment from leaders, managers and supervisors to execute existing programs with transparency,” GAO wrote. “The actions TSA has taken—a one-hour training course for supervisors and two programs intended to recognize top performers—did not fully address the challenges that we and TSA identified regarding inconsistent application of the performance management process. Specifically, the training course is designed to communicate to supervisors the agency’s expectations of them regarding staff coaching and development. It does not address the issue of subjective or uninformed performance appraisals.”

Additionally, TSA screeners said they still struggle with work-life balance, due to a combination of understaffing and mandatory overtime, high passenger volumes at airports, difficulties securing child care and the inability to secure leave, a process that still relies on a paper-based system at some airports.

“TSOs at four of the five airports we visited reported challenges requesting and taking annual leave,” GAO wrote. “This included having to request leave many months in advance or new employees not being able to take vacation days during the summer. TSA officials told us that the agency’s staffing model—a tool for calculating resource needs at each airport—accounts for the projected annual and sick leave at each airport. However, they explained that they cannot grant all TSO leave requests or provide all TSOs with their desired work hours due to the operational demands of passenger volumes and the variable demand for different shifts.”

GAO also documented difficulties TSA screeners experienced simply receiving messages from leadership—a primary tool organizations use to engage workers—because there either were not enough computers available on site to check their emails or because their shifts were too busy. TSA has started to address this issue through the development of a new mobile app for TSA workers, as well as the use of informal video messages.

GAO issued nine recommendations urging TSA to analyze and identify root causes of screeners’ dissatisfaction with the agency’s performance management, career development, work-life balance and management’s communication with frontline workers, as well as to do more to ensure that airport leaders are implementing the provisions of their local action plans. The Homeland Security Department concurred with all of the watchdog agency’s recommendations.