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Withdrawal of TSA nominee raises concern about agency workforce

Withdrawal of TSA nominee raises concern about agency workforce

Jessica Lambertson | Government Executive

January 21, 2010

The lack of permanent leadership at the Transportation Security Administration is delaying action on several agency personnel issues, union leaders and other observers said on Wednesday.

TSA has a number of issues that continue to contribute to its high attrition rate and low workforce morale,” said Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, in a statement. “Many of these issues, such as insufficient training, low pay, inconsistencies in workplace policies and injury rates, will only be successfully addressed with a permanent administrator.”

Kelley’s comments were in response to Erroll Southers’ decision on Wednesday to withdraw his nomination as TSA chief, despite bipartisan support from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Southers’ nomination attracted controversy over the law enforcement veteran’s admission that he improperly accessed FBI data 20 years ago on his estranged wife’s then-boyfriend. Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., also expressed concern that Southers would support the right of TSA screeners to bargain collectively, which DeMint and others believe could jeopardize aviation security. Current law allows agency employees to unionize, but the unions do not have the power to create collective bargaining contracts with TSA managers.

John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, said obtaining collective bargaining rights for TSA workers is still an attainable goal despite the political controversy the issue has sparked. “We think the administration can move forward providing rights to [Transportation Security officers], to providing them a voice at work before the confirmation of a new administration head. We think it’s legally OK, and, given the circumstances, necessary.”

Southers’ withdrawal is another blow to the Obama administration’s record of filling key agency vacancies, according to the nonprofit group Partnership for Public Service. By the end of 2009, the administration had filled 59 percent of its important posts.

“We’re a year into the Obama administration, and we have a critical leadership position that remains unfilled,” said Max Stier, president and chief executive officer of the Partnership. “In the context of the attempted Christmas Day bombing and many other threats, this is a job that should have been filled a long time ago.” Stier said the absence of permanent leadership means that TSA employees lack crucial management while the American public lacks an assurance of safety. “This is not a good story for anybody,” he said.

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