Tales from the TSA trenches: new security measures heighten worker stress

November 29th, 2010 by Julie Ferguson

Some of the year’s busiest travel days just passed with little event, despite widespread threats of massive disruption in protest of the new screening procedures recently implemented by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In response to numerous personal anecdotes about invasive searches, irate consumers planned an Opt-Out Day for November 24, historically the busiest flying day of the year. On that day, those opposed to the new measures were encouraged to opt out of the scanning machines, requesting instead the more time-consuming physical pat-down. But Opt-Out day came and went with little fan-fare or disruption – some reports indicate that about 99% of the passengers opted for the advanced imaging technology screenings over patdowns.
Some think that the public opposition was overblown and overhyped by the media. Public polls continue to show that support for the full-body scanners is strong and that most travelers value protection over privacy (although there was less support for the more invasive pat-downs). In The New York Times, David Carr dissects the false alarm over the TSA, saying that “If a squadron of mad scientists surrounded by supercomputers gathered in a laboratory to try to conjure a single news topic that would blow up large, they could not touch the T.S.A. pat-down story.”
From the trenches
Meanwhile, one little discussed aspect of the story is the impact that the new procedures are having on the front line TSA employees themselves, a group of workers who may well have rapidly edged out lawyers and politicians on the scale of reviled professions. In response to public anger, the TSA’s union – The American Federation of Government Employees – issued a statement calling for the TSA to provide better protection for employees and more public education.
Steven Frischling, who runs a blog about flying and traveling, took a sampling of TSA employee opinions to get their reaction to the new procedures and their role in the new security measures. Not only did he find that his respondents universally disliked the new procedures, he discovered a severely demoralized and stressed-out work force.
All those responding to Frischling expressed discomfort with the personal nature of the pat-downs. As one explains:

“It is not comfortable to come to work knowing full well that my hands will be feeling another man’s private parts, their butt, their inner thigh. Even worse is having to try and feel inside the flab rolls of obese passengers and we seem to get a lot of obese passengers!”

But more than the discomfort with the responsibilities, TSA worker morale seems to be suffering from a heightened level of verbal abuse which is directed at them. They speak of being called everything from molesters to Nazis:

“I served a tour in Afghanistan followed by a tour in Iraq. I have been hardened by war and in the past week I am slowly being broken by the constant diatribe of hateful comments being lobbed at me. While many just see a uniform with gloves feeling them for concealed items I am a person, I am a person who has feelings. I am a person who has served this country. I am a person who wants to continue serving his country. The constant run of hateful comments while I perform my job will break me down faster and harder than anything I encountered while in combat in the Army.”

You can get a sense of the intensity of the anger in many of the 800 comments posted to Frischling’s article.

While worker turnover has been a persistent problem for the agency, TSA had more recently been reporting some progress on that front. In addition, TSA managed to make great strides in improving its workers compensation program. In a November 2009 story in Risk and Insurance, Melissa Turley writes about the “Cinderella story” of how TSA turned around its workers’ comp program, slashing both the number of injuries and lost time. We’ll have to see if TSA can tackle this new challenge to worker morale.
If you fly frequently, you will get a front row seat to this evolving drama. There are large issues at play, many of which will be more appropriately addressed in the courts than in the airport screening lines.

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