Customs and Border Protection is short-handed. At a time when Commissioner Alan Bersin is trying to return Customs to its traditional role as a trade facilitator, the agency hasn’t been able to fill the ranks of employees to support that mission.
Attrition is resulting in too few import specialists, entry specialists, auditors and other trade support specialists trying to manage ever-larger volumes of imports.
For importers, that inevitably means delays in getting their goods to destination and, potentially, complicates their ability to maintain lean inventories, let alone a smooth supply chain.
“You have a shortage of staff at the port level,” said Susan Kohn Ross, an international trade attorney with Mitchell Silberbert & Knupp in Los Angeles. “An inspector will hold a shipment, and you can never get hold of him to find out why. There are times when an importer can provide information and resolve the matter, or clear up a matter that doesn’t warrant a seizure.
“Once a case goes to penalty, seizure or liquidated damages, some of the paralegals are handling more than 1,000 cases,” said Ross, who also writes a monthly “Customs Update” column for The Journal of Commerce. “The big cases are sent to headquarters, but HQ is also being pulled in too many directions. “Seizure goods get the priority, but after that, anything can happen. I have a couple of cases where we made offers to settle. They’re 2 years old, and I still can’t get an answer.”
Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, acknowledged Customs hasn’t been able to process some of the seizure cases, so some of those goods have been released before undergoing a proper review. The NTEU represents 24,000 of Customs’ 61,000 employees.
The shortage is only likely to get worse, with 25 percent of the trade employees eligible for retirement within two years, Kelley said.
“They’ve already had one brain drain of all the experienced people who retired over the past 10 years,” Ross said. “If you have even more experienced people retiring, it puts us in the trade in the same position we’re always in: We have to educate their new people.”
It’s a familiar refrain across the supply chain spectrum, from ocean, rail and motor carriers to third-party logistics providers and shippers themselves: The 2008-09 recession, combined with the Baby Boomers reaching retirement age, is depleting the industry of long-term, knowledgeable and experienced veterans, exposing those companies to much of what Customs is experiencing today.
Kelley isn’t blaming Customs’ management for the problem. Congress has created more jobs in Customs, but only in specific categories. For example, the number of Border Patrol agents has doubled to 20,558 since that previously separate agency merged with Customs with the creation of the Department of Homeland Security in 2003.
“When Congress appropriates funding, they tie it to specific positions,” Ross said. “Those positions are almost invariably enforcement. While that’s somewhat understandable, it’s not where the trade needs the help.”
Kelley said there have been some increases, “but not enough.”
“Even with the staffing they have, they have not kept the trade personnel numbers at the level that they need.” In fact, trade support employees comprise a relatively small portion of Customs’ work force.
Customs officials did not respond to an interview request. In a written statement, the Office of International Trade said, “Trade functions are not considered understaffed.”
Kelley said it’s surprising Customs is having staffing problems even though the agency ranks second behind the Internal Revenue Service in the amount of revenue it collects. Without Customs collecting duties and fees, the country’s deficit problem would be all the worse.
“I never understand why Congress would not fund agencies like the IRS and CBP, not only from a security standpoint, but from a revenue perspective,” she said.
Congress also is unlikely to step into the breach. “CBP had hoped to have some significant growth over the next three years to staff the ports of entry and do the trade work,” Kelley said. “I don’t think anyone is overly optimistic that it’s going to happen. The House, in particular, wants to cut every agency. For many of them, their work today is about keeping what they have and avoiding being cut back to 2010 or 2008 levels.”
Not surprising, the shortage of people has affected morale. “It’s not good, but you have to balance that. They like the work that they do, and believe it’s critical to the country,” Kelley said. Current economic conditions also could influence an employee eligible for retirement.
“They understand that there will always be rough times, but the staffing issue didn’t just happen a year ago,” Kelley said. “When I talk to employees across the country, the morale issue is absolutely coupled with their decision whether or not they want to retire. They’re waiting to see when the reinforcements will show up.”
Contact R.G. Edmonson at email@example.com.