TSA screeners under fire for long lines at airports

Airlines, lawmakers seek to boost morale, cut turnover

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Los Angeles Times

The starting pay is about $34,000 a year with no automatic pay raises based on tenure.

They are on the front line in the battle against terrorism but don’t carry a gun. Their employer is routinely the punch line of jokes on late-night television shows.

Such is the life of a Transportation Security Administration screener.

“Every now and then, we get thanked by the public, but for the most part, it’s a pretty thankless job,” said Bobby Orozco Jr., a TSA screener at Los Angeles International Airport.

With U.S. airports handling record crowds this summer, airlines and federal lawmakers say they want to improve morale and reduce the unusually high turnover rate among the nation’s TSA screeners to ensure security lines are staffed appropriately during peak travel periods.

Lines that kept travelers waiting for two hours and longer this spring persuaded airlines to donate money and workers to help TSA speed up the queues.

The attrition rate among full-time TSA screeners has been growing over the last few years and is especially high among part-timers, who represent about 20 percent of TSA screeners.

The TSA recently was ranked nearly last among all federal agencies in a job satisfaction survey.

Without a fix, travelers can expect continued staffing shortages at the TSA and long lines at airport screening checkpoints.

“The system is broken, no doubt about that,” said Orozco, who also is president of his local union.

Lawmakers and aviation experts have offered two solutions: Either give airport screeners a raise and improve their employee protection rights or turn over more airports to private security firms, which have a reputation for happier workers and a lower turnover rate.

The TSA employs about 42,500 screeners, down about 10 percent from 47,000 in 2012, according to the organization. Meanwhile, the number of passengers screened at U.S. airports is expected to reach 740 million this year, up about 16 percent from 638 million in 2012, the agency said.

“There are not enough transportation security officers, and that is very evident,” said J. David Cox Sr., national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners.

One reason for the decline in screeners is that Congress cut the TSA budget, assuming that more travelers would sign up for programs such as TSA PreCheck, which offers expedited screening lines for frequent fliers who pass a government background check.

Another reason for the drop is the turnover rate, according to union officials who represent TSA workers. They blame low pay and difficult working conditions and being denied the full rights given to other federal employees.

TSA representatives declined to comment on the subject, citing negotiations with the union.

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