Updated 2:52 p.m. MDT 3/2/20
The Transportation Security Administration has quietly ordered a nationwide freeze on hiring and overtime for airport security screeners amid record-breaking numbers of airline passengers and the spring break travel season just weeks away, Homeland Security officials say.
The cost-saving measures, announced this week to federal security directors by phone and in effect until April 26, also raise safety concerns as screeners strain under pressure to keep wait times down. The hiring freeze could cause a ripple effect as the Homeland Security Department subagency scrambles to catch up with hiring, resulting in longer security lines that could extend well into summer, security experts and airport officials say.
In an emailed statement to KUER, the Transportation Security Administration said it was looking ahead to a busy summer.
“In anticipation of another record-breaking summer travel season, the Transportation Security Administration is managing resources by prioritizing overtime to the busiest of travel periods,” the agency said. “Additionally, TSA will continue to assess applicants for entry into TSA, and will conduct two extended hiring windows to coincide with the busy summer travel season.”
The Trump administration anticipates a 4% growth in aviation passenger traffic in the coming year, according to the Department of Homeland Security’s 2021 fiscal year budget request. Nationwide, the agency screened 839 million aviation passengers, or about 2.8 million passengers a day in fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30.
The hiring freeze could pose problems for travelers destined for or leaving places like Salt Lake City, where officials expect a new airport to open in September. They’re also preparing for additional challenges posed by enhanced security measures involving the REAL ID Act, which goes into effect Oct. 1.
The Salt Lake airport has seen record numbers of passengers the past two weeks and is again expecting high volumes this weekend, said Nancy Volmer, spokeswoman for Salt Lake City International Airport. The airport had 26.8 million passengers pass through in 2019, according to airport statistics.
“If staffing levels are impacted it could be really difficult for passengers,” she said of the hiring freeze.
It may be too early to tell what impact the hiring and overtime freeze is having on airport screening. But on a recent weekday afternoon, the security line at the Salt Lake airport was starting to back up when Oscar Aguirre, 47, of El Paso stepped in behind nearly 100 people.
“It's a little bit of a longer line this time,” said the medical equipment technician, who travels for work weekly between Texas and Utah. “Normally you’ll see probably 10 people around.”
Several airline industry officials and trade groups declined to comment, saying that they had not been briefed by the Transportation Security Administration about the staffing issue.
A congressional aide in Washington said that lawmakers are awaiting more details, but the Transportation Security Administration highlighted a “delay in hiring” in its 2021 budget justification. The belt-tightening stems from a 3.1% pay raise for federal employees that Congress approved last year. As a result, the agency had to redirect funding, officials say.
As security officials at U.S. airports were being notified this week, the agency’s top official, David P. Pekoske, was in Iceland for meetings on strengthening aviation security, according to his Twitter feed.
The President's budget shows a clear and continued commitment to attract, build & inspire the Transportation Security Officer workforce. I will continue to support the men and women of #TSA who are working to protect the nation's transportation systems for people and commerce.
— David P. Pekoske (@TSA_Pekoske) February 12, 2020
The agency is trying to load up its hiring pipeline before the freeze is lifted, according to an internal TSA email. But John Pistole, who led the Transportation Security Administration from 2010 to early 2015, said it typically takes two to three months to get a new employee on the job.
While the staffing issue could be seen as a vulnerability for potential terrorists to exploit, the U.S. transportation security system, relying on U.S. intelligence and Homeland Security efforts, is still the best in the world, he said.
“It’s probably more a matter of inconvenience than security,” Pistole said.
In its 2021 budget request, the Transportation Security Administration called for 47,596 transportation security officers. Overall, the Trump administration is cutting the counterterrorism agency’s 2021 budget by $10.5 million, down to $8.2 billion. It was not immediately clear how this will affect operations in Salt Lake City or elsewhere.
But for employees of the Transportation Security Administration, who already suffer from low morale as they rank near the bottom of federal workers’ job satisfaction, the hiring freeze and overtime caps were a first.
When asked about the freeze, a security screener at the Salt Lake airport, who declined to give their name, didn’t hold back.
“It’s stupid,” the employee said.
Hydrick Thomas, who leads the union that represents Transportation Security Administration employees, said he’s never seen a hiring freeze at the agency since he joined in 2002. The president of American Federation of Government Employees TSA Council 100 added that he heard about it from a security director when normally there’d be a memo or other official communication.
“You always have overtime — no matter how much staff you hire. This agency has large turnover every month,” he said. “What are you going to do when you have no staff to process passengers?”
Even once the freeze is lifted, it will take an extended push to recruit, vet and hire new employees to reach necessary staffing levels, said Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers.
He said a hiring freeze coupled with a cap on overtime was “like stepping on the accelerator and the brakes at the same time.”
“If they’re dealing with growth, they need more people. It’s foolish to say ‘We want you to do more with less’ when we know they can’t do their job as it is now,” he said. “Some people need to go back to the drawing board.”
Andrew Becker is an editor for KUER News. Follow Andrew on Twitter @BeckerReports