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Dulles TSOs who missed work during snowstorm marked AWOL

Dulles TSOs who missed work during snowstorm marked AWOL

Joe Davidson | The Washington Post via YellowBrix

February 17, 2010

When it comes to an agency’s reputation among federal employees, the Transportation Security Administration has long been a bottom feeder.

Morale is low, attrition is high and it has no leader.

And if that were not enough, the agency now has some really unhappy transportation security officers at Dulles International Airport who say they are being marked AWOL, absent without leave, if they missed work during the recent snowstorms. In contrast, the situation apparently was handled in a more reasonable way at Reagan National and Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall airports.

Before we go any further, it’s worth noting the good work the TSA does to keep the flying public safe. But the agency’s success on that front isn’t matched by its record in keeping workers content.

Discontent is the way to describe many transportation security officers at Dulles. Of about 100 who were expected to work on Feb. 6, approximately 60 could not make it because of the snow and were considered AWOL, said John Gage, president of the American Federation of Government Employees.

At the same time, National Airport worked with employees to develop a plan that included people who volunteered to work and no punishment for those who stayed home, according to one labor leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity. And BWI, Gage said, had a liberal leave policy for TSOs.

“I think the [Dulles] management has dug a little hole,” he added.

The TSA seems to realize that and is trying to climb out. “TSA will revisit and amend time cards on a case-by-case basis to ensure the most appropriate leave status is used and review policies applied by each airport to ensure consistency given the extreme weather situation,” the agency said in a statement.

The officers who were interviewed did not want to be identified because, as one said: “If they find out I talked to the media, they will fire me.”

That same person said he “tried my best to get to work [on Feb. 6], but I couldn’t do it. I got stuck several times.”

A colleague said he rented a hotel room near the airport, only to struggle on Feb. 6 to get to his job, where he said he found “no flights, no passengers, no work.” After he returned home, he said, he began to suffer back pain from shoveling snow. That led him to call in sick last week, he added, only to have the sick time he indicated on this time sheet changed to AWOL by management.

“This has happened to many other officers as well,” he said. “Those refusing to sign off on the changes are being threatened with letters of reprimands and suspension.”

Another Dulles TSO said he was told he could take leave without pay for missing Feb. 6 and marked his time sheet that way. A few days later, he was marked AWOL instead.

“A lot of us were surprised,” he said. “We had no idea what changed during that time period.”

One subject of confusion is the “emergency personnel” designation that Dulles TSOs said they were given after the storm began.

“How we became emergency employees with no emergency training or emergency vehicles to navigate in a blizzard is a point of contention, among many others, with TSA management,” one security officer said.

Added another: “I didn’t know I was ‘emergency personnel’ until two or three days ago. I didn’t know at all, and I’ve been with TSA over two years.”

Now the TSOs are concerned about what AWOL will mean for their futures. The mark could negatively affect pay and promotional opportunities, said Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union.

It certainly is understandable that TSOs might be needed to keep an airport operating if flights were continuing to take off, which they largely were not in this case. But it’s also reasonable that employees should be told they are emergency personnel before an emergency strikes. National and BWI provide lessons that Dulles managers should heed.

The problems at Dulles only add to the ill repute the TSA has gained in federal employment circles. Of 216 agencies in the Partnership for Public Service’s “Best Places to Work in the Federal Government” survey, the TSA ranked 213 in 2009.

In congressional testimony last year, Kelley attributed the low moral to high attrition and injury rates in the agency. “Our union officers have been demoted or moved to less desirable areas for trying to get employee disputes resolved,” she said. “TSOs are forced to take annual leave when they clearly are eligible for Family and Medical Leave.”

Things might be better if the TSA could get a boss. Erroll Southers, President Obama’s pick for the job, withdrew his nomination last month in the face of Republican opposition.

The Dulles situation is just one more mud pie in the TSA’s face.

Washington Post Staff writer Eric Yoder contributed to this column.

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