Twenty years after its inception, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security still has more than 32,000 of its original employees — including 334 Transportation Security Administration workers in Atlanta.
Some of them were invited to an awards ceremony this week hosted by DHS deputy secretary John Tien at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport.
The Transportation Security Administration was created in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, with the enactment of a new law requiring airport screening be conducted by federal officials instead of airline contractors, among other security measures.
“After Sept. 11, we were deployed throughout the country to all of the airports,” said Sherri Stevens-Mack, who is now a TSA assistant federal security director for mission support in Atlanta. “Sometimes the desk was a cardboard box. You scrambled to find a variety of things. It was a challenge. It was invigorating, very exciting — just to work with a variety of people to make the agency come together.”
DHS was created as a result of the Homeland Security Act passed by Congress in November 2002, to oversee a unified national strategy to safeguard against terrorism.
Federal agencies including TSA, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) and U.S. Customs Service were transferred to the Department of Homeland Security, which launched March 1, 2003 with about 180,000 employees. Tom Ridge, who was the first Assistant to the President for Homeland Security, became the first DHS Secretary.
DHS is the third-largest federal department measured by the size of the workforce, behind the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs.
Tien gave out awards on Wednesday to DHS employees for their achievements and recognized local TSA employees who have worked for DHS since its inception. The event in Atlanta was one of eight being held around the country.
Tien in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution spoke of the importance of recognizing those who have been with DHS since its inception and “are still in the service of the nation.”
Tien said in the 20 years since DHS began, it has faced “these ever-evolving threats,” including cybersecurity threats against critical infrastructure.
The longtime TSA employees have stayed with the agency in spite of high turnover rates in the workforce. A TSA report to Congress last year noted the agency continued to experience “hiring challenges” and the agency had been working to reduce attrition and improve morale.
Over the years, TSA through multiple administrations has come under criticism for missing prohibited items at checkpoints, for pat-downs and body-imaging machines, and for reacting to threats after incidents have occurred.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske in Congressional testimony this week said the agency had used retention incentives to keep employees on board. He said the administration’s budget request includes $251 million for a 5.2% pay raise for TSA employees. TSA’s starting pay is $18.63 an hour for part-time transportation security officers in Atlanta.
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Credit: Henri Hollis / Henri.Hollis@ajc.com