Some employees will also face mandatory deployments outside their normal duty stations.
The Trump administration is continuing to shake up the Homeland Security Department, requiring furloughs and deployments of some employees, while offering others incentives to retire early or exclusive opportunities to apply for positions elsewhere in the department.
The early retirement offers were sent out this week to employees at the Transportation Security Administration, according to an internal email obtained by Government Executive. Patricia Bradshaw, TSA’s assistant administrator for human capital, told employees management is taking the steps to “fine-tune the organization.” Transportation security officers at 35 airports currently offered retention incentives, and certain other positions, will not be eligible for the Voluntary Early Retirement Authority offers.
Elsewhere in TSA, the agency is offering Federal Air Marshals Service workers an opportunity to apply for jobs at Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The openings are exclusively available to the air marshals and are for both ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations and Homeland Security Investigations offices. Employees would serve as deportation officers or criminal investigators.
The agency told employees the opportunity was for Air Marshals Service employees “wishing to provide their skills within other areas of DHS,” but would not lead to attrition within the component.
“Let me be perfectly clear, the Federal Air Marshals Service will remain as the key law enforcement component within TSA,” the agency told employees. “This effort is not a plan to reduce or eliminate the FAMS,” adding it is “fully committed to hiring for all positions vacated by this effort.”
Days after receiving that email, however, TSA employees, including some at the Air Marshals Service, received the early retirement offers. Thomas Kelly, a TSA spokesperson, said the there was no connection between the early retirement offers and the job offers for the marshals. Kelly attributed the workforce reduction efforts across the agency to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
"The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a significant reduction in the demand for air travel," he said. "This has impacted TSA’s short-term staffing requirements. Allowing eligible TSA employees to retire under VERA in the short-term saves the government money as the airline industry works through the recovery process."
Customs and Border Protection, meanwhile, has told 800 officers from ports around the country they will face two consecutive 60-day deployments to the southwest border. DHS has asked for reprogramming authority to temporarily move the employees, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents the CBP officers. CBP last year deployed 750 officers from their normal ports of entry posts to the southwest border.
The officers would serve in Texas at Rio Grande Valley and Laredo posts. Cases of coronavirus are currently spiking in the state, which NTEU said makes the deployments unsafe.
"We have grave concerns about sending additional federal law enforcement personnel into a region where COVID-19 cases are spiking and hospitals are nearly full," said NTEU National President Tony Reardon. The agency is struggling to keep safe CBP personnel already in the area, Reardon said, and has not demonstrated it will have the requisite personal protective equipment, lodging and transportation and access to health care for additional staff.
Reardon added CBP has not committed to testing employees at the end of their deployments or requiring them to quarantine for 14 days, as public health officials have recommended for those who may have had exposure to the virus. Reardon said the agency does not have adequate testing or contact tracing for CBP employees already at the border. More than 1,000 agency employees have tested positive for COVID-19.
“CBP should be focusing its resources on the health and safety of CBP personnel already assigned to the border, including policies that allow for appropriate social distancing at the port and giving employees more time to remain safe at home,” Reardon said.
The DHS workforce shakeups follow U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services using reduction in force procedures to send furlough notices to more than 13,000 employees last month. The agency has cited a downturn in application receipts stemming from the coronavirus pandemic as the root of the budget crisis necessitating the forced, unpaid time off. USCIS has notified Congress it is seeking $1.2 billion to avoid the furloughing of more than 70% of its staff, but Republican and Democratic aides have said they are still awaiting a formal request for the funding.
CBP initially said it too was at risk of furloughing employees due to a reduction in collected fees, but subsequently walked back that threat, citing confidence it would identify other means to address the issue.
CBP did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.
At TSA, only employees who are at least 50 years old and have 20 years of experience, or anyone with at least 25 years of experience, will be eligible for the early retirement offers. TSA has only existed for about 18 years, so employees would have to have prior federal service to qualify. Executives may limit the number of early retirements within their organizations and cannot coerce anyone to accept the offer, Bradshaw, the human capital official, said in her email. She added additional incentives to retire early are not guaranteed, but leadership may opt to employ them at a later date.
Eligible workers must separate from TSA by Jan. 31. Kelly, the agency spokesman, said TSA's staffing requirements will increase accordingly as travel picks back up.
This story has been updated with comment from TSA.