Report: TSA screeners' low morale may hurt airport security

Low morale among the nation's airport screeners may be compromising security and forcing screeners to quit their jobs, a controversial government report said Tuesday.

The 29-page report by Homeland Security Department Inspector General Richard Skinner is the latest to chronicle personnel problems among the nation's 48,000 airport screeners. The workforce has some of the highest turnover and injury rates in the federal government.

Unlike past workplace reports, this one says security could suffer as a result.

"Given their frustration, employees may be distracted and less focused on their security and screening responsibilities," Skinner's report says.

Transportation Security Administration chief Kip Hawley ripped Tuesday's report, saying it relies on disgruntled screeners at a few airports. "This results in flawed conclusions," Hawley wrote in a sharp, point-by-point rebuttal.

The report charges the agency with "not successfully addressing … longstanding workplace issues." Among them are screeners' concerns that they feared retaliation for raising complaints and were discouraged by managers from meeting with an ombudsman.

The report says screeners have complained about discrimination, selective hiring, nepotism and "management misconduct" but gives no details. Skinner focuses on TSA's efforts to deal with workplace problems before screeners file formal complaints.

TSA efforts to address problems were called inadequate. The agency's programs that it set up to deal with personnel issues "may provide false hope and have the unanticipated effects of heightening employee dissatisfaction," the report says.

AJ Castilla, a screener at Boston's Logan Airport and spokesman for a screeners' union, said in an interview Tuesday that conflicts with TSA managers are taking a toll. "With low morale, you can definitely lose your focus," Castilla said.

But deputy TSA administrator Gale Rossides said that morale is "very good" and that screeners "are very much turned on" and focused on security. The TSA recently began training all screeners in improving interaction with airline passengers and is giving them new uniforms with badges aimed at getting more respect.

"We have areas to improve upon, but we also have made great strides," Rossides said.

Hawley's written reply accuses Skinner of "bias" because his investigators interviewed screeners at only eight of the 450 commercial airports, and those airports were picked because screeners there had previously aired complaints.

Hawley also seized on what he called "unclear" conclusions, noting that the report says screeners "may" be distracted.

A Homeland Security Department employee survey released in February found mixed feelings among screeners. While 94% said their work was important, only 20% said promotions are based on merit.

Hawley, who two years ago called screening a "dead-end job," has tried to create new, skilled positions such as screeners who patrol airports to find suspicious-looking passengers.

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