TSA’s gender gap shortchanges female officers

Building a diverse workforce has become a mantra, hopefully not a hollow one, for organizations in the public and private sectors. For the Transportation Security Administration, gender diversity is more than a goal, it’s an absolute necessity.

Transportation security officers at checkpoints in the nation’s airports get up close and personal with passengers. Not only do they pry through all sorts of personal things, but sometimes they must pat down the person to make sure no contraband sneaks aboard a flight.

When a pat down is required, the patter must be the same sex as the pattee. So what happens when there are too few female TSOs to handle the load of female passengers? The answer at Washington Dulles International Airport and others across the country has been to transfer female screeners from baggage inspections to passenger lines.

“Unfortunately our female hiring pool and our rapid growth will not support our . . . male/female ratios,” says a March 17 memo from Dale K. Chandler, the TSA scheduling operations officer at Dulles. “Because of this, all females will be transferred to passenger that are assigned to baggage.”

The transfers haven’t happened yet, and discussions between management and workers are continuing. Placing women on the passenger lines might seem like a reasonable solution to the staffing problem, but it has ramifications for seniority, transfers, promotions and pay.

The main issue is the lack of female officers. Women are only about 30 percent of the Dulles TSOs.

Nicholas Kimball, TSA’s press secretary, said the agency makes “every effort to recruit both female and male employees to allow all officers to bid for checkpoint and non-checkpoint positions.”

Moving women from baggage to passenger checkpoint is a temporary solution to a long-standing problem. TSA management needs “to seriously investigate the causes for their inability to hire and keep female TSA officers and find solutions to that issue,” said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union. Her organization and the American Federation of Government Employees are campaigning to win the right to represent airport screeners.

AFGE President John Gage said moving female workers is “a prime example of a reactive management, rather than one that is proactive. TSA has had nine years to figure out what is the right percentage of female officers. Instead of recruiting and hiring from a pool of new female hires, management is forcing all of its current employees to scramble for a solution.”

The temporary solution could negatively affect screeners not just at Dulles but also at airports in Nashville, Detroit, Illinois and Wisconsin, where an AFGE spokeswoman said the problem also has occurred.

Being forced to go from baggage to checkpoint is more than simply moving from one room to another.

“It forces [women] into a single-function capacity as opposed to dual- function, as they were before,” said Valyria Lewis, a Memphis TSO speaking in her role as president of AFGE Local 555, which covers Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Alabama. “It limits their marketability to other airports.”

When TSA issued a memo in January saying lead TSO positions for women in Nashville “will be available at the checkpoint only,” one woman demoted herself from a lead position, taking a $2,900 pay cut, according to Lewis.

Limiting the roles women may take in safeguarding the flying public hinders their ability to advance. In Nashville, it makes “female TSOs hesitant to apply for lead positions,” Lewis said.

Forcing them into one role also complicates situations related to seniority and bidding for shifts. All the women at Dulles, for example, would have to bid for checkpoint shifts, while men could bid for shifts in baggage and checkpoint.

One result could be an exacerbation of child-care problems for women.

The increased competition among women for a limited set of shifts that allow them to also care for their children — and there’s no doubt that women take more of that responsibility than men — can be a big problem for those with a job that might require them to be at work before dawn or late at night, said Kathy Phillips, speaking as the AFGE local president at Dulles, where she also is a TSO.

“There’s no female in baggage who is happy about” being forced to the passenger line, she said. They want to know, “How come I don’t get to choose just because I’m female?”

Good question.

Joe Davidson writes the Federal Diary, a column about the federal workplace that celebrated its 80th birthday in November 2012.
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