TSA's Personnel Policy Should Be Grounded

Sunday, April 23, 2006

In a Dec. 7, 2004, op-ed column, "Training Daze at TSA," I wrote about my experience as a screener at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, now BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. I described the difficult working conditions there and the Transportation Security Administration's failure to meet its obligation to provide ongoing training for its workers.

The day after my column appeared, I was given a trainer who supervised me one-on-one and criticized my every minor misstep. I was told that if I wasn't perfect on recertification testing, I would be terminated. The recertification process is grueling, but I passed.

A few days later, I received a letter from the TSA giving me 10 days to resolve a $1,200 tax lien problem I had with Maryland that dated to the early 1990s. I hadn't even known about the problem, because Maryland places such liens as a matter of course without informing the taxpayer.

Although I quickly made arrangements for payment of the lien, which turned out to be partially in error, the TSA terminated me anyway for neglecting the issue in the first place. A manager told me I was considered a bribery risk.

When Congress created the TSA, it also created a huge loophole in how the agency can deal with its employees. Section 110 of the Aviation and Transportation Security Act says:

"Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Under Secretary of Transportation for Security may employ, appoint, discipline, terminate and fix the compensation, terms and conditions of employment of Federal service for such a number of individuals as the Under Secretary determines to be necessary to carry out the screening functions."

In other words, in the name of management flexibility, TSA employees must go without collective bargaining and other standard workplace protections.

Each of the country's airports now is managed by a TSA director who has almost total autonomy. So, instead of a national standard, the TSA has hundreds of standards. The result is a workforce with low morale, a high rate of workplace injuries and record attrition. TSA workers at BWI and elsewhere can even have their leave restricted by management for the sin of taking leave at times that the management may find inconvenient.

According to recent testimony before Congress by the Government Accountability Office's director of homeland security and justice issues, the TSA has an annual attrition rate of 23 percent among full-time workers and more than 50 percent among part-time workers. The TSA's answer to that glaring problem has been to ask Congress for $10 million to address attrition.

But more money won't solve the TSA's management shortcomings, not when any TSA worker who stands up against workplace discrimination can face retaliation. In 2004, for example, I was given a two-year reprimand -- meaning no bonuses, no transfers and no promotions -- for making public a letter I wrote to management about workplace discrimination. And I had to wait about a year, until December 2005, for the TSA disciplinary review board to issue a decision on my termination over the lien. The board found that I had been wrongly terminated, and I was reinstated -- but not until March 20.

If the TSA needs certain flexibilities to accomplish its mission, it should be asked to explain how basic workplace protections such as collective bargaining interfere with that mission. No government agency should be unaccountable for its treatment of employees. But until Congress fulfills its oversight responsibility and holds the TSA accountable, all of us will be a little more vulnerable.

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