Washington, D.C. – Customs and Border Protection is operating with 3,700 fewer CBP Officers than it needs to keep our nation’s ports of entry operating safely and efficiently, National Treasury Employees Union President Tony Reardon testified to Congress today.
“The CBP employees I represent are frustrated that Congress does not recognize that securing the ports of entry is just as vital to border security as is securing the borders between the ports of entry, and that the ports are an economic driver of the U.S. economy,” Reardon said.
Reardon testified before the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.
There is an existing vacancy rate of about 1,200 CBP Officers, which have been funded by Congress but not filled. The agency’s own 2018 workload staffing model calls for 2,500 more officers and 731 more Agriculture Specialists to be added, as well.
“The more than 25,000 CBP employees represented by NTEU are proud of their part in keeping our country free from terrorism, our neighborhoods safe from drugs, and our economy safe from illegal trade, while ensuring that legal trade and travelers move expeditiously through our air, sea and land ports,” Reardon said. “But frontline CBP Officers and Agriculture Specialists at our nation’s ports of entry need relief.”
The shortage impedes travel and trade by causing delays at the ports; it damages morale because officers are forced to work excessive overtime or are temporarily reassigned to other places of duty far from their homes and families; and it means there are fewer officers available to conduct more in depth secondary inspections.
Reardon also informed Congress about the role that CBP plays in fighting the opioid epidemic. By increasing staffing levels at the express consignment hubs, CBP could improve the interdiction of fentanyl now being shipped internationally into the U.S. CBP has so far implemented two of its three phases for collecting the necessary data on inbound express cargo, and needs more CBP Officers and direction from Congress to penalize carriers for allowing mislabeled shipments that are actually carrying substances that contribute to the opioid epidemic.
“Congress, by requiring CBP to report this useful information on violators and violator penalty assessments, would enhance CBP’s interdiction of prohibited items from entering the U.S. through express consignment operators,” Reardon said.
Reardon said the union supports the nomination of Kevin McAleenan to be the next CBP commissioner and urged the agency to fill the 1,200 vacant Officer positions as soon as possible. Reardon also recommended Congress fund the additional 2,500 new Officers and 731 new Agricultural Specialist positions, and restore recruitment and retention awards and other incentives to improve morale and help attract and keep qualified professionals.
However, Reardon testified that the agency’s decision to spend $297 million on a private contract to augment the hiring process appears misguided.
“NTEU believes this money could be better spent by utilizing available pay flexibilities on actual Officers, to incentivize new and existing CBP Officers to seek vacant positions at hard-to-fill ports of entry,” he said.
Some of the most severe shortages are in the ports in the southwestern states, including Nogales, Arizona where there are 300 current vacancies. CBP employees and union members stationed in Nogales say they are losing employees because of the untenable working conditions that include near-daily overtime shifts, including back-to-back 16-hour shifts, for work that is increasingly dangerous. The stress of managing child care with a schedule that constantly changes and shifts that always go long also makes it hard to recruit and retain employees.
Just this past weekend, CBP started a new round of 175 Officers who are being sent to Nogales from other ports around the country on temporary duty assignments. In addition to the hardship on those Officers and their families, their home ports are forced to cover for their missing shifts. For example, officials at Orlando International Airport have alerted their congressional delegation about their concerns over losing 10 CBP Officers to Nogales and other more remote ports.
At San Ysidro, Calif., there are 200 CBP Officer vacancies where 60,000 vehicles and 25,000 pedestrians apply for entry every day. The port is scheduled for an expansion by 2019, and neither the president’s January 2017 executive order on border security nor the 2018 appropriations include any new funding for CBP hiring.
“Imagine working up to 16 hours a day here for days on end with no relief in sight,” Reardon said.
NTEU represents 150,000 employees at 32 federal agencies and departments.