Transportation security officers are the front line of the Transportation Security Administration. In testimony May 21, Congress heard that these key security personnel suffer from low pay and high turnover rates.

“Ensuring that TSA hires, trains and retains professional workers should be one of the Department of Homeland Security’s top priorities. Unfortunately, the administration has placed supporting TSA workforce on the back-burner,” said Lou Correa, D-Calif., chair of the House Committee on Homeland Security subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security.

Correa questioned the wisdom of deploying TSOs to the southern border at the start of the summer travel season. “TSA workforce is already stretched too thin and can’t afford such diversions,” he said.

DHS Acting Inspector General John V. Kelly pointed to a number of issues plaguing the TSA workforce, which at the end of the fiscal year 2017 numbered some 61,000 employees, more than half of whom were entry-level workers.

TSA doesn’t always hire the most qualified people, he said, and would benefit from an improved interview process. The agency has training deficiencies, with no standardized approach to training. “This can cause a significant problem,” he said.

Attrition is an especially sore point, running at about 17 percent overall and as high as 26 percent among part-timers. In FY17 TSA spent $75 million to hire and train over 9,000 new security officers, roughly 20 percent of whom left within six months of being hired, he said.

That turnover rate has a big impact at the Port of Seattle, said Lance Lyttle, managing director of the aviation division there. A booming economy makes TSA less than competitive, and with turnover rates high among TSOs, the airport has seen lines stretching through the terminal and out into the parking lot.

TSA recently approved a temporary increase in wages for local TSOs in Seattle, who now are starting at more than $20 per hour. Lyttle said such measures are crucial to continued safe operations. “Lower turnover rates and decreased cycle times for recruitment and training will lead to more efficient and effective TSOs,” he said.

Money alone won’t solve the problem, according to J. David Cox, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO. He pointed to systemic issues within TSA that discourage TSOs from staying on for the long haul.

The TSO workforce is “separate and unequal,” he said. Unlike other TSA and DHS workers, “TSOs are excluded from the due process rights, the collective bargaining rights, the pay system and other personnel rules.”

This results in low salaries and meager rewards even for top performers, he said. At the same time, the disciplinary system is overly harsh, and TSOs have no access to an effective grievance and arbitration process. He called for TSOs to be covered under federal Title 5 protections.

The subcommittee also heard from Jeffrey Neal, senior vice president at ICF, who reported on the findings of a blue-ribbon panel chartered by TSA to look at human capital. The panel found that TSOs perceive “favoritism in promotions and work assignments, inadequate pay and challenging working conditions,” he said.

The panel recommended TSA implement standardized job descriptions, better training and permanent assignments for its field HR staff, among other measures. “We believe these will ensure a stronger field HR staff who are better equipped to meet the needs of TSOs,” he said.