The Washington Post

TSA seeks office staff’s help to keep checkpoint­s moving

Agency offers bonuses, mandates overtime as air travelers return

- BY IAN DUNCAN ian.duncan@washpost.com

The acting head of the Transporta­tion Security Administra­tion has issued a memo warning that 131 of the nation’s largest airports will face staffing shortages this month, while asking office workers to volunteer to assist with airport checkpoint­s.

Darby Lajoye, who is filling in as the agency’s administra­tor, wrote that help is needed as travel numbers are forecast to spike through the summer. The volunteers, who were told to expect to serve for up to 45 days, would not be able to screen passengers but could help manage queues and aid with administra­tive tasks.

“With this increase in volume, TSA must maintain operationa­l readiness and ensure that the screening workforce is available to perform screening functions,” Lajoye wrote in the May 30 memo, obtained by The Washington Post.

The request is one measure the TSA has taken in recent weeks to manage staffing shortages as U.S. air carriers record their highest passenger counts of the pandemic. The agency also has promised recurring $500 monthly bonuses to screening officers at airports that are significan­tly shortstaff­ed, allowed part-time workers to become full time, adjusted shifts and increased the use of overtime — including requiring officers to work on their days off, according to union leaders.

The TSA says it has recruited 3,100 new employees in recent months and wants an additional 3,000 by the end of summer, but the latest steps to stretch its existing workforce show the scale of the challenge it faces as air travel rebounds from historic lows.

In a statement, the TSA said it is confident it has the resources to get travelers through checkpoint­s and onto planes.

“The Transporta­tion Security Administra­tion is well-positioned to meet rising traveler volumes this summer,” the agency said in a statement. “The agency began a concerted recruitmen­t effort this past winter in anticipati­on of increasing volumes and is on pace with establishe­d benchmarks to meet hiring goals.”

In announcing a hiring drive earlier this year, the TSA said it was seeking to recruit 6,000 officers “by summer” but later said the figure represente­d its goal for the budget year that ends in September. The push was hampered by a rocky transition to a new informatio­n-technology system that left officials relying on manual workaround­s to process recruitmen­ts.

Hydrick Thomas, president of American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) Council 100, the officers’ union, said the agency is staring down the peak summer travel period and “realized they couldn’t hire the 6,000 like they promised to do.”

“People are going to be traveling,” he said. “They’re going to come to the airport and see these long lines and wonder what’s happening.”

That was Fareeda Ali Bullert’s experience Friday when she arrived at Austin-bergstrom Internatio­nal Airport for a flight to New York. Bullert said as soon as she entered the terminal, it was clear something was wrong, with large crowds and no direction from TSA workers.

“It was very much passengers helping passengers, sharing how long they were on the wait for,” she said. “The lines were wrapping around and almost crisscross­ing.”

After about an hour of waiting — followed by a lot of running — Bullert said she made it to her flight with about five minutes to spare.

In Charlotte, hundreds of people recently missed flights after being stuck in long lines.

The TSA was short at least 2,500 officers heading into June, according to an agency assessment obtained by The Post, with some of the largest airports down more than 100 officers compared with projected staffing needs.

Five of the nation’s largest airports were short at least onetenth of their projected necessary staff: Detroit Metro Airport, Denver Internatio­nal Airport, Dulles Internatio­nal Airport outside Washington, St. Louis Lambert Internatio­nal Airport and Boston Logan Internatio­nal Airport.

In all, the analysis identified 235 airports that were shortstaff­ed by at least 5 percent and

where officers would be eligible for $500 bonuses each month. An agency memo about the threemonth program said that “we are trying to offer as many incentive options as possible for airports to successful­ly perform their operations.”

Thomas, the union leader, said that the prospect of bonuses is welcome but that mandatory overtime shifts will not be as popular with officers.

“It’s kind of stressful,” he said. “It works better when you ask for volunteers rather than try to mandate somebody.”

While the TSA has recruited 3,100 new officers, agency spokeswoma­n Alexa Lopez said about 2,090 workers have left since the start of the year. Lopez

said many of those leaving worked part time, while a greater proportion of the new hires are full-time employees.

TSA data shows an uptick in traveler numbers in recent weeks. On Memorial Day weekend, more than 1.9 million people passed through security checkpoint­s on Friday and Monday, the highest figures since demand for air travel plummeted in March 2020 as the coronaviru­s began to spread widely in the United States. This past weekend brought another day with more than 1.9 million passengers.

In the memo seeking volunteers, Lajoye wrote that he expects those numbers will keep growing: “TSA is experienci­ng an increase in passenger volumes at checkpoint­s, and anticipati­ng a significan­t summer surge in travel, especially considerin­g that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued new guidance pertaining to the safety of travel for vaccinated persons.”

How the volunteers would be put to use would be up to regional leaders, but the memo suggested they could help manage queues, carry out personnel work or do other jobs that do not require employees who are certified as security officers.

The memo asked volunteers to come forward by June 1 and be prepared to start their assignment­s June 4. It was not clear this week how many volunteers the agency received as a result of the memo.

Lopez said the TSA regularly asks for volunteers at busy times such as Memorial Day weekend and around the Christmas and Thanksgivi­ng holidays. She said the assignment­s help office staff members gain a familiarit­y with the agency’s core mission.

The agency has long struggled with retaining employees, with officers complainin­g of low pay and poor morale.

Last week, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced steps to strengthen the officers’ union, saying he would approve new collective­bargaining rights and provide officers with a new system to appeal personnel decisions — protection­s most other federal employees already have. He also said he supported the desire of officers to be fairly compensate­d.

The changes, Mayorkas said in a video message, “recognize your contributi­ons, empower you as you deserve and build upon the improvemen­ts that your leaders already have accomplish­ed on your behalf.”

Everett Kelley, the national president of AFGE, praised the steps, saying TSA officers’ service during the pandemic underscore­d their need for better treatment.

 ?? SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES ?? Transporta­tion Security Administra­tion recruiters at a job fair at Chicago’s O’hare Internatio­nal Airport last month. The TSA has warned of staffing shortages at airport checkpoint­s this summer.
SCOTT OLSON/GETTY IMAGES Transporta­tion Security Administra­tion recruiters at a job fair at Chicago’s O’hare Internatio­nal Airport last month. The TSA has warned of staffing shortages at airport checkpoint­s this summer.

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