TSA Tries Bonuses to Retain Screeners

WASHINGTON -- The Transportation Security Administration will pay airport screeners up to a $1,000 bonus to entice them to stay at the turnover-plagued agency as it prepares for a summer of record air travel.

Roughly one in four screeners left last year, a rate nearly twice the rest of the federal workforce. Gale Rossides, an associate TSA administrator, said the bonuses are aimed at preventing a screener shortage during the upcoming peak travel months -- when long lines could lead to higher security risks for travelers.

The TSA will spend $20 million to give most of the nation's 43,000 screeners $500 extra. The first bonus will be paid May 11 to screeners who've been on the job a year and who are deemed less likely to leave. Other screeners will get $500 for working through the summer.

Screeners will get a second $500 bonus if they work at "hard-to-hire" airports that have trouble filling vacancies.

"We understand the $500 may not be as much as some people want, but it is a commitment on our part to try to begin to invest in the workforce," Rossides said.

The number of screeners at some checkpoints is "not sufficient for peak periods," according to a report by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm. Screeners are the front line of defense against smuggling weapons on planes.

The Air Transport Association projects the number of people taking flights this summer to increase from last summer's record of 206 million.

Screeners make $23,504 to $44,580 depending on experience and where they work. Rossides said many screeners leave in their first year as they struggle to adjust to fluctuating work schedules and a "hectic pace."

The bonus "isn't going to retain anybody," said Kimberly Kraynak, a $39,000-a-year screener at Pittsburgh International Airport. She called $500 "a joke."

Added Boston screener A.J. Castilla, who makes $37,064: "What will $500 mean? I could probably take a weekend off somewhere and de-stress a little."

The screener attrition rate grew to 24.5% from about 15% in 2003 when the TSA began to take over aviation security from private companies. Those companies, with turnover exceeding 100%, were criticized for using inexperienced screeners who missed weapons.

TSA chief Kip Hawley told screeners in an April 20 newsletter that the longer they stay on the job, "the higher the performance of their security duties will be." Hiring and training a new screener costs $12,000.

Los Angeles International Airport warned Hawley in an April 12 letter that it was losing 40 to 50 screeners a month and could be short 300 screeners out of 2,000 by August. That would create "significant security concerns" because passengers thronged in checkpoint lines would be a terrorist target, airport executive director Lydia Kennard and chairman Steven Holt wrote.

The Airports Council International is pushing TSA to hire laborers to speed up security lines by loading bags on belts and ushering passengers through queues.

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