An annual test required of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screeners has contributed to low morale and high turnover at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, longtime employees say.
Known as the annual proficiency review, the recertification test fails to assess a transportation security officer’s ability to detect “real-world threats,” said Celia Hahn, president of the union that represents some 800 workers in Minnesota, North Dakota and South Dakota. Screeners who fail the test after two tries are automatically fired.
Since last summer, about 100 screeners who failed the test were fired nationwide, including 11 experienced officers at MSP, Hahn said, noting that others have retired early or quit, pointing to exam-related stress. The attrition rate of TSA employees locally is about 10 to 20 officers a month, she added.
The departures come as TSA attempts to hire hundreds of screeners across the country after last summer’s long security lines infuriated travelers. TSA now employs about 44,000 screeners at 440 airports, but that’s down from roughly 47,000 three years ago.
Nationally, TSA hired 373 workers to replace 4,644 who left the agency in 2014, according to the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE). All of this has proved problematic as affordable airfares continue to attract more passengers.
TSA said in a statement that the recertification test is “fair and representative” of the screeners’ work. “TSA strives to make the proficiency review as realistic as possible,” said spokeswoman Lorie Dankers. MSP has 629 TSA screeners and expects to hire 30 to 40 more this fiscal year.
The recertification test calls for screeners to pat down co-workers, who are acting as travelers while supervisors watch — an attempt to mimic real-life scenarios. Another part of the test requires a pat-down of a colleague posing as a passenger in a wheelchair.
Union officers say the most contentious portion of the test calls for screeners to view muddy X-ray images on a computer screen that bear no resemblance to images made by the actual equipment. At the airport, screeners view baggage with high-resolution machines, but the test images “look like a photo that’s been xeroxed six times,” said Neal Gosman, treasurer of AFGE Local 899 in St. Paul.
In addition, standard operating procedure calls for X-ray screeners to call for a supervisor if they see a questionable image in baggage. But that answer is not an option on the test. “They train for one thing and test for another,” Gosman said.
Dankers said TSA strives to make the test as realistic as possible, noting “much of that review occurs in and around the screening locations where people work each day.”
Those failing the test can appeal, but Hahn says the Office of Professional Responsibility Appellate Board claims it has no authority to assess the validity of the exam. So far, all appeals lodged by fired MSP employees have been denied, she said.
A recent survey of AFGE employees in Minnesota and the Dakotas indicated 94 percent feel the recertification test “destroys screener morale.”
TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger has placed a high premium on training employees since he assumed his position in 2015. “Ensuring world-class training for employees throughout TSA is integral to developing an organizational culture focused on security effectiveness and unifying our approach to counterterrorism and security operations,” Neffenger said in congressional testimony last June.
In January, TSA began sending newly hired officers to basic training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. This was done under the premise that the “shared experience” of training alongside fellow officers will “build morale and ensure a collective understanding of TSA’s mission and operations,” Neffenger said.
It’s unclear how much TSA spends to train each new employee. Dankers, the agency spokeswoman, said “TSA considers recruiting, hiring and training of officers a cost of doing this type of business.”
Jeff Price, an aviation professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, said that training is critical so that officers know how to do their jobs. “Training and recertification have to be as close to real life as possible,” Price said.
TSA screeners receive a written evaluation from their supervisors, but it has no bearing on their employment, said Hahn, president of Local 899. Union officials say that performance-improvement plans — widely used in the private sector and by other government agencies — would be a better way to assess employees and retrain those who need it.
“Instead, we just blame and remove them,” Hahn said.
Annual recertification is a requirement of the Aviation Transportation Security Act, which established the TSA following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Other government agencies, including the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, do not require recertification of their agents, union officers said.
The act calls for a proficiency review, but doesn’t offer specifics on what type of test should be used. The union, which has limited collective bargaining rights, does not have a say in how the tests are crafted.
Even so, Dankers notes that the law requires security screeners “to pass the review or they cannot be employed.”
Hahn wrote to Neffenger on Oct. 17 in an effort to reinstate her fired colleagues and call attention to the test. He responded within an hour of receiving her e-mail. “He said he wasn’t a fan of the current procedure,” she said, and that there would be a change by the end of the year. Thus far, she hasn’t heard back and the test remains.