Capitol Hill (CNSNews.com) - As many as 3,000 newly-hired airport security screeners may think they are the victims of a cruel April Fools' joke, but they won't be laughing long. Those workers could begin receiving termination notices Tuesday according to Admiral James Loy, administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).
Monday a representative of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) called the threatened cuts "an insult to the memory of September 11th."
In a letter to TSA screeners made public late Friday, Loy wrote that he wanted to "clarify news reports" about the layoffs, and placed the blame for the workforce reductions on lawmakers.
"Earlier this year, Congress passed an omnibus budget bill to fund most government services through the end of the current fiscal year," the letter stated. "Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, the budget allocation for TSA fell short of what we believed was needed to adequately support the current level of operations."
A Different Tone in Congressional Testimony
Thursday, in testimony before the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Loy acknowledged that TSA was requesting $350 million less than the agency's FY 2003 budget as enacted by Congress. He explained that TSA's Fiscal Year 2004 budget request of $4.812 billion does not include many one-time costs from 2003 - such as buying explosives detection equipment - which should allow the agency to operate for less money.
Loy also admitted that TSA had made several "missteps" in its infancy that may have cost the agency money unnecessarily.
"We have learned from these mistakes and will continue to improve in this fiscal year and [in] FY 2004," Loy told the subcommittee.
"TSA will continue to implement efficiencies in screening operations, including both technological enhancements and cross training of passenger and baggage screeners, to further reduce the reliance on personnel," he added. "As a result, our 2004 request represents a total staffing decrease of 3,000 more screeners from 2003 levels."
Peter Winch, national organizer for AFGE, said the threatened firings do not fulfill the promises made to gain public support for the federal take-over of airport security.
"When the American people were behind this after September the 11th they wanted a professional federalized workforce, well-trained and well managed," Winch said. "This action is actually an insult to the memory of September 11th."
The reductions would drop the screener force to 51,000, but Loy insisted the move will not affect the security of air travel.
"Obviously, this will be done consistent with the security paradigm being maintained," he stressed. "We will use a risk-based approach to 'right-size' our workforce and demonstrate to the president and Congress that we are obtaining the maximum security and protection for the traveling public from the resources provided."
Union Says Loy Putting Budget Above Security
Winch believes TSA has "botched" the management of its workforce.
"This action by TSA sends the wrong signal when we're at war and we need to have the utmost confidence in our security at our airports," he said. "If TSA would work with us, we would be able to make the case that security should come first - we'd make that case to Congress - and not whatever other budget concerns."
Numerous TSA screeners have joined AFGE, despite the fact that the union is forbidden by law to engage in collective bargaining on behalf of screeners. Winch said, based on a recent survey he completed of TSA screeners that had contacted AFGE about membership, that as much as 50 percent of the TSA workforce is currently seeking employment elsewhere.
"[TSA's leaders] are taking steps that are going to degrade airport security by announcing this layoff and I think it's a serious mistake on their part," Winch argued. "Morale is terrible and they don't care."
Some Screeners Could Stay On Part-Time
Loy said his goal is to "make necessary staff reductions in a way that impacts as few screeners as possible."
"To achieve the necessary savings, we will first look to reduce our numbers through attrition, voluntary relocations of screeners from airports with too many employees to those with not enough, and conversion of some full-time positions to part-time positions," he said.
However, Loy acknowledged that "other actions" might be necessary to accommodate the budgetary restrictions.
Winch accused TSA of trying to encourage attrition so that the agency would not have to fire employees.
"That's exactly how the screeners I talk to feel, that they're being encouraged to quit," Winch said. "There is this constant, petty mismanagement all around them."
He also warned that current part-time screeners are not receiving the classroom training mandated for full-time staff, receiving only on-the-job training instead.
"If [TSA] goes this route, the American people will not have a system they can have confidence in," he said. "They'll have the bottom of the barrel, the last people who are left, the people who can't or don't want to get any other job and that's not what we asked for."
TSA has asked for $27 million to expand its electronic surveillance systems, which Loy claimed will offset the loss of "hands and eyes" at the checkpoints.
"Cameras will enhance security operations by monitoring activities intended to bypass the screening process, by providing a fast visual identification of those committing infractions, and by allowing a quick response to any disruption in operations," he told the subcommittee. "It will also protect screeners from false claims of abuse, and passengers from property theft or tampering, by recording all transactions in the screening areas."
AFGE believes TSA could better "protect" its employees by giving them the training, support and job security they need to improve morale and concentrate on their mission.
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