Ted S. Warren / AP file photo

Lawmakers Demand Changes at TSA After Investigations Find That Low Pay Is Causing High Turnover

Blue ribbon panel says TSA must make targeted pay increases, but not convert employees to GS system.

Lawmakers on Tuesday voiced an urgent desire to reform the pay system for airport screeners, saying the Transportation Security Administration is losing workers at a far too rapid rate due in large part to dissatisfaction with their compensation.  

Witnesses before a panel of the House Homeland Security Committee expressed similar concerns, suggesting high turnover was putting the nation’s security at risk. Their testimony came on the heels of two investigations into pay and retention issues at TSA, both of which called for sweeping changes.

The hearing followed a newly released scathing report by a blue-ribbon panel commission by TSA, which found a poorly run human resources office and insufficient compensation system to retain employees. The panel found a deeply unhappy workforce, especially among frontline transportation security officers. Employees feel incapable of career advancement and trapped by low pay, the panel said. It found employees work long hours in difficult conditions, but their pay often lags behind that of industry counterparts.

TSA maintains its own pay system outside of the General Schedule that dictates the pay for most federal employees. The agency’s unique pay bands leave “little hope of movement,” the panel said, noting it would take 30 years to get from the lowest level of the band to the highest.

“This produces the effect that the E-Band pay range is illusory, with few [transportation security officers] in the middle or at the top of the band,” the panel wrote.

The hearing also followed an inspector general report last month that found TSA loses employees at a rapid rate due to low pay and limited opportunities for career growth. TSA hired 9,600 screeners in fiscal 2017, outpacing the nearly 8,100 officers who left the agency. However, about one-quarter of the new hires left within the first six months of their start dates. The agency spent $16 million to hire and train those workers, part of the $75 million it spent onboarding employees overall that year.

John Kelly, the acting DHS inspector general who also testified at Tuesday’s hearing, summarized the problems at TSA in three categories: a failure to hire the most qualified applicants, a lack of standardized training for screeners that puts the security of the aviation system at risk and an inability to retain transportation security officers.

The blue ribbon panel found that while typically other management issues are the largest drivers of turnover, TSA screeners are leaving most often because of pay. The group recommended the agency not switch to the GS system, calling it overly rigid and outdated. Instead, it called on TSA to use the statutory flexibility Congress provided it when standing up the agency to provide targeted pay increases, such as in areas where private security guards earn more than TSA officers.  At the hearing on Tuesday, Jeffrey Neal, the former chief human capital officer at the Homeland Security Department and chair of the blue ribbon panel, called for a cadre of screeners to be upgraded as high as five levels up the pay band.

Neal noted any of the changes would first require TSA to simply spend more money on labor. Members of both parties suggested an openness to adjusting at least some of the pay rates.

“We all recognize something must be done to give better pay to these individuals,” said Rep. Lou Correa, D-Calif.

TSA Administrator David Pekoske, who currently serves as the temporary deputy secretary at DHS, previously told Congress he recognized the problem and would address pay issues by June 30.

“What I am looking to do is to be able to exercise the full extent of those authorities to be able to improve job satisfaction with the workforce, to be able to look at overall pay and compensation issues so we begin to address them in a systematic way,” Pekoske said.

The blue ribbon panel suggested TSA reform its hiring process, noting its unique flexibility should make it easier for the agency to reduce its nine-month hiring time. It also said the agency should address widespread findings of employees who “perceive favoritism” and feel they cannot voice complaints to management. The panel suggested the agency make changes to its promotion process, including through improvements to IT systems that would boost transparency.

Several lawmakers voiced concerns about reports that TSA has deployed employees to the southern border to support Customs and Border Protection. Witnesses, such as the managing director of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and the head of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA employees, said they had not received any briefings on the deployments. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., equated the strategy to “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”