WASHINGTON – In little more than a year, the Transportation Security Administration has grown from 13 employees to 64,000, 42 percent more than Congress wanted.
TSA chief James Loy said Monday that 23,000 of those new federal workers are airport baggage screeners hired to monitor checked bags for explosives. Another 33,000 are airport passenger screeners -- the people who check travelers before they get to the gate.
The remaining 8,000 workers hold various positions, from airport security directors and deputies to administrative assistants.
Congress created the TSA following the Sept. 11 attacks and imposed a 45,000-employee cap, but the agency got around it by giving some employees five-year, "temporary full-time" contracts.
Loy defends the hirings but acknowledges the TSA is strapped for money because, like most other agencies, it's operating at last year's funding level after Congress failed to pass a new annual budget before leaving town for the holidays.
"We are literally holding a meeting on Thursday to figure out (what account) we're going to steal from to pay our employees," Loy said.
Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky., chairman of the House Appropriations transportation subcommittee, has harshly criticized the TSA for its hiring practices.
Rogers was traveling Monday and unavailable for comment, said his spokeswoman, Leslie Cupp. However, earlier this fall he said the TSA was "growing too fast into a huge bureaucracy."
"We have reviewed TSA's staffing estimates and concluded that they can do the job with 45,000 full-time federal employees," he said.
House Republicans have proposed giving the TSA $5.2 billion this year, $200 million less than Loy requested. The GOP plan calls for less spending on staffing and more on such things as installation of stronger cockpit doors and airport modifications to accommodate bomb-detection machines.
Though congressmen may criticize the TSA, lawmakers are unlikely to make deep cuts in an agency that many view as crucial.
Loy said he plans to talk to Rogers and other critics and believes he'll be able to convince them that the work force is the right size.
Steve van Beek, senior vice president of Airports Council International-North America, an airport trade group, said the TSA has a huge job and needs lots of people to fulfill it. Without adequate staffing, he said, baggage screening could become bogged down, creating long lines and delaying flights.
"I'm comfortable with the number out there right now," he said.
Andy Davis, spokesman for Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., outgoing chairman of the Commerce Committee, said the senator and other Democrats don't have a problem with the size of the work force.
"(Hollings') view is that aviation is national security and we've got to find the money for it," Davis said.
The TSA took over airport security from the airlines, which hired private companies to check baggage and screen passengers. Critics said the private companies provided little training, paid low hourly wages and provided few benefits, creating high turnover.
The TSA's starting salaries range between $23,600 and $35,400, and benefits include health care, life insurance, paid vacation and sick leave. The screeners receive 44 hours of classroom training, 60 hours of on-the-job training and a promise of advancement if they do well.