One Tired, Under-Trained, Overworked Face at the Border

By Stephen Barr
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

There may be "one face at the border," but it's working too much overtime, not getting enough training and has no voice in how to get the job done. It's all adding up to fatigue and poor morale.

That's the snapshot of Customs and Border Protection that emerged at a Senate hearing yesterday that looked into staffing shortfalls at air, sea and land ports where visitors and citizens cross into the country.

"This is a vicious circle -- understaffing creates problems that lead to turnover, and high turnover makes it very difficult to address the staff shortages," said Sen. Daniel K. Akaka (D-Hawaii), who called the hearing as chairman of the Senate federal workforce subcommittee.

Customs and Border Protection, or CBP, was formed four years ago as part of the mega-merger that created the Department of Homeland Security. The agency drew its workers from three formerly distinct staffs: all of the old Customs Service, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and part of the Department of Agriculture's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.

The inspectors' duties were rolled into a new position, CBP officer, in what the agency called its "one face at the border" initiative. The goal was to create a unified force that would not only counter post-9/11 terrorist threats but also prevent illegal immigrants and criminals from entering the country and monitor which goods were being imported.

But Richard M. Stana, director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office, testified yesterday that auditors who visited CBP field offices found too few officers and weak inspection practices, such as not always asking to see identity and travel documents, that permit thousands of illegal immigrants and criminals to enter the country.

Some officers do not receive training before rotating to new inspection duties, and officers who lack training rely heavily on senior officers, but many of those more experienced officers appear to be leaving CBP, a GAO report said.

CBP managers at 19 of 21 field offices told the GAO that staff shortages had prevented them from carrying out anti-terrorism activities or hampered their use of radiation monitors and other technologies to inspect cargo and travelers.

The GAO withheld data on staffing from the report because CBP deemed the information too sensitive for public release. But people who have seen the data said they show that CBP needs 1,600 to 4,800 more officers and agriculture specialists. The people provided the information on condition that they not be identified

Although CBP employs about 17,600 officers at U.S. entry points, the agency has relied on overtime to keep shifts staffed at a number of its airports, seaports and border stations, including some that operate around the clock. In fiscal 2006, staffing shortages forced officers to work 4.2 million hours of overtime, according to the people who saw the CBP data.

Paul M. Morris, executive director of admissibility and passenger programs at CBP, agreed with Akaka that staffing has become "a vicious circle," with some field offices in worse shape than others. He noted that turnover has always been a problem for border agencies, in part because many officers work outdoors and in stressful conditions.

On average, 71 officers left the agency each two-week pay period in fiscal 2007, an attrition rate of about 10 percent, CBP said.

Asked by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) whether CBP's salaries are competitive, Morris said officers hired at the General Schedule 5 level ($25,000 to $33,000 a year in base pay) have trouble making ends meet in high-cost cities like Los Angeles and New York. The average salary for a CBP officer in field operations is $58,530.

CBP loses officers to agencies and other employers that pay more or provide a more generous pension, he said.

Stana said many CBP officers are not satisfied with their working conditions and "would like more of a say in how things are run." He suggested that CBP headquarters try to listen more to officers in the field and partner with the CBP union on workforce issues.

Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents CBP officers, said the agency does not invite union cooperation. "There is zero involvement," she told the subcommittee.

Staff writer Spencer Hsu contributed to this column.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company