WASHINGTON -- An ambitious program that paid the nation's airport screeners $18 million in bonuses as an enticement to stay in their jobs did not reduce the turnover rate at the Transportation Security Administration, which still has one of the highest attrition rates in the U.S. government, according to agency data.
The TSA has battled high turnover among screeners since the agency was formed after the Sept. 11 attacks. It is looking for ways to curb a staffing problem that has lengthened lines at airport checkpoints.
The TSA began paying 36,000 of its 45,000 screeners "retention bonuses" of $500 or $1,000 each in May. The turnover rate over the summer was unchanged from the winter and spring months, according to the TSA and the federal Office of Personnel Management.
One in five screeners left from Oct. 1, 2005, to Sept. 30.
"It's menial labor," said Michael Boyd, an aviation consultant who advises airports and airlines. "These are people who paw through luggage."
The TSA acknowledges the attrition problem and is taking additional steps. Among more recent efforts to curb turnover is a new pay grade that will raise salaries of high-quality veteran screeners by up to $5,300 and better position them to move into other government-security jobs such as the Secret Service or Border Patrol, according to TSA.
The agency also says it is creating screener jobs with salaries up to $56,700 that will focus on detecting bombs or identifying suspicious passengers. TSA has maintained that screeners with more experience are better at finding weapons at checkpoints.
Such improvements could help upgrade screening -- which pays an average of $30,000 a year -- "from a dead-end job to an occupation where (screeners) can see years of opportunity," said Gale Rossides, a TSA associate administrator.
The efforts come as some airports face longer security lines, prompting a TSA publicity campaign that urges travelers to know the rules about items they can carry onto planes so fewer bags have to be searched.
Cris Soulia, a screener in San Diego, said $500 bonuses amounted to $335 after taxes and "really don't have any effect" on people quitting.
Rossides said the attrition "is probably not that high" when considered against screeners' salaries and their physically demanding work, which often requires lifting heavy bags. Some efforts to retain screeners started too recently to affect attrition, Rossides said.
TSA figures show that attrition is lower than before 9/11, when private companies ran airport security.
Rossides said the bonuses and other efforts are improving morale and screener retention. She said TSA data show screeners are less likely to quit now than they were six months ago. But those gains are being offset by a growing number of part-time screeners, who are twice as likely to leave as full-timers.
The agency has 8,200 part-time screeners, up from nearly 6,200 late last year, and will add even more. Part-time screeners work brief shifts at busy periods.
Randy Walker, director of Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport, said that he's seen no reduction in turnover and that lines are "still painful on our peak times." But he said a new program that shifts screener hiring from TSA headquarters to TSA's local airport security directors means vacancies are filled faster.
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