Federal Employees News Digest

NTEU presses Congress for improved CBP funding

Customs and Border Protection is suffering from chronic staffing shortages, causing unsustainable overtime and inadequate work breaks for many at the agency, according to the National Treasury Employees Union, which represents thousands at CBP.

Delays in clearing goods and visitors for entry into the country—also partly a result of the staffing problem—are also damaging the U.S. economy, the union’s president, Anthony Reardon, last week told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

A big part of the solution, Reardon said, is obvious—for Congress to provide additional money for new hires.

Ironically, although the labor shortage continues, the money to cure it already has been appropriated and so has the call for additional officers. As the money and manpower come online, these should hasten the movement of both goods and people at the nation’s ports and borders.

Unfortunately, funds have been diverted by a provision in another piece of legislation, and the needed hiring surge has been slowed.

“NTEU was disappointed that Congress, in last year’s highway bill, diverted Customs user fees to serve as an offset for highway funding, rather than use this fee increase to hire additional CBP Officers,” Reardon told the subcommittee. “NTEU will work to redirect this $400 million a year funding stream back to CBP for its intended use—to pay for inspection services provided to the user.”

“Taking four years to hire 2,000 CBP officers is just way too long,” subcommittee Chairman John Carter (R-Texas) told the panel, without speaking to the offset issue. Instead, he pointed out that despite the agency’s best efforts, the agency is “losing more agents than it can hire.”

“These are urgent problems that must be fixed,” Carter said.

Shortages ‘all across the country’

FEND talked to Reardon to find out more about the challenges the agency—and its employees—are facing.

“Essentially the issue is this: There are incredible staffing shortages at the agency, all across the country,” Reardon told FEND. “If you look at certain areas, it’s even worse—for example San Ysidro, in California, and across [New York State]—basically along the northern border, and across the southern border of this country. The shortages are really hurting employee morale and it’s really bad for the U.S. economy.”

“When you have long wait times to get into the United States—whether we’re talking about goods waiting on ships to be unloaded at our ports before they can get into our economic system, or whether it’s travelers and vacationers trying to visit—in both situations, all the waiting in long lines, it’s not good.”

In addition to the increased threat posed by terrorists who could try to take advantage of understaffing, Reardon said potential holes in agricultural inspections also pose great danger to the country.

“In terms of agricultural products, for example, we just don’t have enough agricultural specialists in our agency now,” Reardon told FEND.

“If the agricultural products are waiting to get into our country, we are concerned about that [delay], but also we are concerned about getting them in safely,” Reardon said. “If we cannot be sure if things aren’t coming in with them—if they are infested with pests, we as a country need to know that. Our farming depends upon invasive pests being found, identified, and stopped.”

In terms of preventing both terrorist attacks and accidental importation of dangerous pests, Reardon said the strain on staff is leaving our nation’s border protections potentially compromised.

“It’s a wide-ranging problem,” Reardon said. “We have employees who are working 12- and 15- and even 16-hour days, some of them routinely,” “That wears on a human being—and the security of our country pays a price for it.”

“We need CPB officers to be rested and ready to do their jobs, and we want them to live balanced lives,” Reardon told FEND.

Drawing from feedback from union members and testimony provided in Congress, Reardon said what is happening now is the opposite—and it creates danger. The current situation simply ruins work-life balance.

“What we run into, unfortunately, is that when you are working like 12 or even 15 hours a day, you can’t schedule around that,” Reardon said. “You don’t know if you will miss your son’s baseball game, or your daughter’s chorale concert, or an important parent-teacher meeting, or a family gathering—the events that are part of being a human being with a connected family life—and yet these people don’t have an opportunity to live that life.”

Questions on where problems lie

CBP’s proposed budget for fiscal 2017 is approximately $13.9 billion, a bump of $686 million more than fiscal 2016.

That’s a significant boost, as Reardon and lawmakers note. But under the circumstances, they say it’s not going to be enough.

“Unfortunately, gimmicks in the department-wide budget have created a $2 billion gap that requires this subcommittee to make hard choices," said Carter.

Reardon insisted that improved funding is necessary, but also said CBP needs reformed hiring practices.

“At NTEU, we really applaud CBP’s plans to meet its 2014 goal to hire an additional 2,000 CBPOs—and they have been provided those funds to reach that number,” Reardon told FEND. “But the agency’s recent workload staffing model shows an ongoing shortfall of more than 2,000 CPBOs and more than 600 agricultural specialists—that means we need more money added for the agricultural specialists.”

“The money for [much of this] has already been provided, yet they have not been able to get the number of people they need hired yet—and I suspect the reasons for this vary,” Reardon said. “One of the issues here, I suspect, is that prospects have to pass a polygraph test and I wonder if CBP doesn’t need to look more closely at their questions and their test, as a whole.”

Reardon said the polygraph test needs to be reevaluated because, between that and other factors, the agency rejects a huge proportion of applicants.

“I mean, the agency has something like 80-plus applicants per every new hire, and that—to me—seems like, ‘Hmm.’” Reardon said. “I’m not saying they are doing something directly wrong here, but I am saying maybe something needs to be made more efficient, or at least something needs to change.”

“I recognize that background investigations take real time, and that we want to make sure that people are trustworthy and good citizens, and that it’s hard to recruit in some places,” Reardon clarified. “But I have to believe, in this economy especially, that there are enough good people that we can get into these good jobs.”

“NTEU has expressed support for the White House’s proposal, which is to provide CBP with $13.9 billion for 2017—about 5.2 percent more than Congress provided last year," he said. "And we’re looking to have Congress provide that additional money.”


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