WASHINGTON — Just in time for the summer travel season comes word that the folks who help keep our skies safe are short-staffed, poorly paid and suffer meager morale.

But wait, this situation could get worse.

Transportation Security Administration officials expect a 4.5 percent increase in airline passengers in fiscal 2020 but have requested only a 2.5 percent staffing increase over the current 46,000 officers.

“We are responsible for living within our top-line budget,” which is set by Trump administration higher-ups, Patricia Cogswell, TSA’s acting deputy administrator, said in an interview.

Understaffing isn’t good for anyone, but it might be worse for passengers in long lines than for the officers who inspect them and their belongings.

“As an officer, we do one passenger at a time no matter how long it takes us,” said William Reese, who has been a transportation security officer since the workforce was created following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Based at Pittsburgh International Airport, Reese is president of an American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) local covering 14 airports. “Whether the passenger loads are great or whether it’s nice and light, we do the same every day. And we’ll continue no matter what the object is put against us.”

They proved that when officers worked without pay during President Donald Trump’s 35-day partial government shutdown that started just before Christmas.

They were given back pay, but that didn’t detract from the general agreement over their low income at a recent congressional hearing. Low pay contributes to the high workforce attrition and low morale that compound the TSA’s employment problems.

Transportation security officers “are among the lowest-paid [salaried] workers in government,” said Rep. J. Luis Correa, D-Calif., chairman of the House Homeland Security transportation subcommittee. Starting pay for full-time officers ranges from $33,160 to $47,371, depending on the location.

“Higher compensation is an important part of the puzzle,” Lance Lyttle, managing director of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, told the subcommittee hearing. Citing the airport’s own security screeners, who staff checkpoints for airport employees and earn more than the federal officers, he added, “We have very little turnover in those jobs.”

Turnover is expensive.

In fiscal 2017, the TSA spent $75 million to hire and train more than 9,000 new security officers, according to John V. Kelly, the Department of Homeland Security’s just-retired acting inspector general, only to have 20 percent leave within six months.

Low pay hurts recruitment. “At hard-to-hire airports, TSA pays security officers 30 percent below the local per capita income,” Kelly said.

“The enormous turnover shows not only that pay is too low but also that overall mistreatment of employees is intolerable,” AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. told the Federal Insider. “Mismanagement and churning through employees is one part of why the agency is chronically understaffed; another is the agency’s preference for part-time schedules that fail to match passenger traffic patterns.”

Cox, like Reese, is pushing Congress to approve legislation that would place the officers under the General Schedule pay system, which covers most federal workers. Currently, transportation security officers fall under an agency system that provides lower pay and fewer civil service protections.

Despite staffing shortages, the Trump administration wants to move hundreds of TSA employees to unrelated immigration duties on the southwestern border, a program some local officials fear could undermine air travel safety.

“Significant diversion of [security officers] would reduce TSA’s ability to open all security lanes during morning peak this summer, which could result in lines out to our parking garage as often as four to five days per week,” Lyttle said.

A report by the inspector general’s office outlined personnel problems plaguing the TSA. On top of the low pay and staffing shortages, the report said dissatisfaction with career advancement was the No. 1 reason for resignations. The report also said that officer training lacks standardization and that employee frustration with supervisors was fed by lack of trust and recognition, disrespect, and unfair appraisals.

“During my four years with the organization, I was not aware of one passenger screener who enjoyed their job, morale throughout the entire agency was terrible, and management was even worse,” said Chris Squier, who quit his Dulles International Airport security position for those reasons.

With its pay and retention record, the TSA ranks 315 out of 415 agencies in its Best Places to Work in the Federal Government category. Yet that poor ranking represents a noteworthy improvement in employee morale from 2016 to 2018.

Officials know they need more, better-paid employees.

“We have gone up more than 10 points in the overall engagement scores, and across the board we have seen increases in all our rates across all levels for both 2017 and 2018, with a pretty significant increase overall,” Cogswell said. “While we don’t love 315, we do think we’re headed on the right trajectory. We are heading in a positive direction.”

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