Feds pay high price for airport screeners | AspenTimes.com

Feds pay high price for airport screeners

Joel Stonington

TSA employees stand behind the security X-ray machine at the Aspen Airport last week. (Jordan Curet/The Aspen Times)

The Transportation Security Administration is paying astronomical rates for some airport security screeners to be housed and fed in resort communities such as Aspen, while local screeners earn sub-standard wages.

When the TSA can’t find enough employees, a special security workforce flies in for what can be months at a time. They live in posh hotels and eat expensive food to the tune of $82,000 a year per screener in Aspen, not including salary and benefits, according to U.S. General Services Administration figures. To keep security operations staffed at Pitkin County Airport, the agency pays up to $289 per day, per workforce employee, for housing and meals. Even in the depths of offseason, the rate is $172 per day for room and board. In Vail, the only Colorado town with a higher per diem, lodging is $301 with $64 for meals in winter. A year in Vail can cost the federal government up to $95,989 for the lodging and food of one airport security screener. The salary for a screener, however, starts at $23,600. With locality pay of 12.5 percent, that adds up to $102.12 for an eight-hour day in Aspen, less than one day of offseason lodging for a workforce member. According to a local TSA employee who declined to be named for fear of losing his job, “many” of the postions here are filled by out-of-towners who are part of the agency’s National Screening Workforce.

Though TSA spokesperson Carrie Harmon would not say what the mix is between local employees and workforce members, the government website advertising for security screeners to work at Sardy Field reads: “MANY vacancies.” The workforce is a mobile group of about 650 security personnel who fly to any one of the 450 airports where TSA runs security and fills in when there aren’t enough employees. Harmon said TSA employees working in Aspen who are part of the National Screening Workforce are put up at the Aspen Meadows. The Meadows, the companion hotel of the Aspen Institute, was voted one of “Aspen’s Top 10 Luxury Hotels” by Luxury Travel Magazine. TSA pays for workforce members to stay for months at a time, or longer, according a TSA employee. “It’s a group of screeners hired to travel around the country where we are short-handed or have trouble recruiting,” said Harmon. “That’s certainly the case in Aspen or other resort towns where the living costs are very high.”The per diem rate, set by the U.S. General Services Administration, for a government employee in an average town is $60 for lodging and $39 for meals. Aspen’s winter per diem rate is $225 for lodging and $64 for meals.

Hence, the federal government spends up to $43,639 just for lodging, meals and incidental expenses (not including pay or benefits) for one airport security screener to spend the winter in Aspen. If a member of the mobile workforce were to spend an entire year in Aspen, the total could hit $82,956. “I can give you a litany of the things we’re doing to recruit,” said Harmon. “When we can’t get and/or retain them, that’s when we have the workforce.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is jstonington@aspentimes.comThe Aspen Times, Aspen, Colo.