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Hiring Freeze At TSA Raises Risk Of Long Airport Delays During Spring Break

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Spring break is right around the corner, and just as millions of travelers are about to jet off on vacation, the Transportation Security Administration has ordered a temporary freeze on hiring and overtime pay for its security screeners. Andrew Becker from member station KUER in Salt Lake City has more.

ANDREW BECKER, BYLINE: On a recent sunny weekday afternoon, the security line at Salt Lake City's airport is starting to back up. Oscar De Guerre (ph) has just stepped in behind nearly 100 people and their strollers, ski gear and roller bags. The 47-year-old medical equipment technician from El Paso travels here weekly.

OSCAR DE GUERRE: It's a little bit of a longer line this time. Normally, you'll see probably 10 people around.

BECKER: This line may not be related to the hiring freeze, but wait times could get worse this spring. The Transportation Security Administration recently stopped hiring screeners and is now limiting overtime at airports nationwide until at least April 26. According to the White House budget request, passenger numbers are growing by 4% a year, and 839 million people flew in 2019. And the TSA is in a pinch. It's struggling with a 3.1% federal employee salary raise that Congress approved but hasn't funded, according to a leaked agency email. TSA declined an interview request, but a security officer at the Salt Lake airport who didn't give her name spoke up when asked about the hiring freeze.

UNIDENTIFIED SECURITY OFFICER: Stupid. Oh, we can't talk to you.

BECKER: In a statement, TSA said the agency is prioritizing overtime in hiring but not until this summer, when officials expect more record-breaking travel. So what does that mean for the flying public?

JOHN PISTOLE: It's really probably more a matter of inconvenience than security, I would say.

BECKER: John Pistole lead TSA from 2010 to early 2015. He says something has to give without compromising public safety.

PISTOLE: It's debatable and arguable of whether limiting overtime and a hiring freeze, even just for two months as this is, does impact. So does it give a window of opportunity to putative terrorists? Hopefully not.

BECKER: An internal TSA email shows that the agency is trying to load up its hiring pipeline before the freeze is lifted, but Pistole says it typically takes two to three months to get a new employee on the job, and that could be seen as a vulnerability. Still, he says the U.S. system is the best in the world because of intelligence-gathering efforts and the hard work of TSA officers. Douglas Kidd, executive director of the National Association of Airline Passengers, says TSA employees deserve more support and the agency needs to hire more screeners.

DOUGLAS KIDD: TSA needs to get their act together on this. It makes you wonder what they're thinking or even if they're thinking at all.

BECKER: TSA employees say they are frustrated that they weren't forewarned about the freeze. Surveys show employee morale at TSA is among the lowest in the federal government, and TSA already has a high employee turnover rate, the agency's union says. The Trump administration's budget proposal would cut $10.5 million from the $8.2 billion TSA received last year.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Becker in Salt Lake City. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.