Customs, Border Workforce Plagued With Retention, Morale Problems

Customs, border workforce plagued with retention, morale problems

By Alyssa Rosenberg
November 13, 2007

U.S. Customs and Border Protection faces substantial challenges in recruiting, retaining and training new officers, maintaining high morale and keeping up with increasing cross-border traffic, a union president, Government Accountability Office researcher and a CBP official told senators at a hearing on Thursday.

The panelists disagreed, however, on which of those is the most critical issue.

Paul Morris, executive director for admissibility and passenger programs at CBP's Office of Field Operations, said the primary problem was the state of CBP facilities.

“We are challenged by the continually expanding demand for our services,” he said. “We have developed and implemented a comprehensive training curriculum. Expanded responsibilities and enhanced technologies have stretched our physical resources well beyond our capacity. Right now, our facilities are stretched to the limit.”

But Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, expressed impatience with what he said were a wide variety of CBP failures.

“As a former mayor and governor, I'm fed up with it,” Voinovich said. “For more than four years, CBP hasn't been able to identify the concrete steps to guarantee they have a skilled workforce in place to meet its mission. . . . I think it's ridiculous that we don't have a performance measure for the traveler inspection program. . . . Before this administration leaves, we want the strategic plan and we want the metrics.”

Richard Stana, GAO's director of homeland security and justice issues, said he thought that Morris' assessment of CBP's needs was incomplete.

“Twenty-one percent [of the CBP workforce] said they're not rewarded for high-quality work. Nine percent said pay raises depend on performance,” Stana said. “Only one-third say they have sufficient resources to do their job. When you take those statistics together, it paints a picture of a morale issue that has to be dealt with.”

Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said a range of factors contributed to dissatisfaction among CBP officers, including pressure to conduct inspections quickly, a rush to do away with job specializations and lack of consultation with the union.

But she said staffing and retention issues were key components in solving CBP's problems.

“Congress must show the public that it is serious about protecting the homeland by fully funding CBP staffing needs as stipulated in CBP's own staffing model and extending [law enforcement officer] coverage to all CBP officers,” she told the committee.

Morris did agree that the lack of law enforcement officer status and adequate locality pay were recruiting and retention challenges.

“In the initial years, it is hard for them to make ends meet and meet the needs of their family,” he said. “Law enforcement coverage provides them additional ways of payment, including overtime and retirement, which they qualify for after 20 years of service.”

Morris defended CBP's approach to training in general.

“All our officers go through 16 weeks of training. Upon their arrival, we do have post-academy training,” he said. “We recognize that four years after the transition to [the Homeland Security Department], we need to move beyond that cross-training; we need to have function-specific training.”

Morris said CBP officials thought it was better to provide training as officers were shifted to different duties rather than to provide all training modules at once.

“If an officer is going to be assigned to a cargo environment, we want to provide them as needed, just-in-time training in a cargo environment,” Morris said. “We don't want to force those 37 training modules on every officer.”

That method of training did not adequately replicate the knowledge of experienced officers, according to Stana.

“The individual at the booth has a greater knowledge of the issues and can decide if the individual in front of them merits further inspection,” he said. “What's not working so well yet is many of the officers who were trained under [CBP's One Face at the Border initiative] haven't received the detailed training to make some of these delicate decisions about things like expedited removal. The port officers told us that as people leave or retire, there's a hole that's left behind.”

Kelley said it was wrong “to think these officers can be cross-trained to be experts. Each of them has their own area of expertise. Cross-training serves a purpose from an awareness purpose, to get those passengers and cargo to secondary. Those secondary lanes need to be staffed so when someone has an awareness from cross-training sends someone there, there is someone there to do the inspection.”