The U.S. Secret Service has not had the best time in the press as of late. There was the big prostitution scandal in 2012 which led to the firing of eight agents. In September of last year, a series of mishaps enabled a man armed with a knife to hop the fence at the White House and make his way into the executive mansion unencumbered. 2014 also saw an armed private contractor eschew protocols and somehow make his way into an elevator with President Obama, just last March a pair of allegedly intoxicated agents crashed their vehicle through a White House security barrier, and most recently, this past August, federal auditors caught two agents sleeping at their posts.
While the media has been quick to condemn the untoward actions of its agents, some have pointed out that many of these security failures could be mitigated by taking a closer look at the sometimes brutal working schedules Secret Service agents must endure in this age of government sequestration and deficit showdowns.
Secret Service Director Joseph Clancy admitted to the agency’s shortcomings in a 2014 Congressional hearing, where he explained that a “severe drop-off” in funding during 2012 and 2013 cut deeply into training resources and forced a skeleton crew of agents to forgo vacation and double up on shifts to keep the agency running.
Inspector General John Roth made a point to call this out in a “management alert” memo to Director Clancy after the incident with the knife-wielding man was investigated by an independent panel, strongly suggesting that the breakneck schedule the agents had been on leading up to the incident contributed heavily to the lack of on-the-job engagement:
“…the most common refrain that the Panel heard from all sources within the Service, from line agents and officers to the director, from special agents to UD (Uniformed Division) officers, is that the Service is overstretched, with personnel working far too many hours. The result, according to all, is an exhausted work force [sic] with low morale.”
After examining the work schedules of the agents, they discovered that at least one of them had been working a 60-hour week prior to the incident. Moreover, the panel noted that it wasn’t uncommon for agents to work 12-hour shifts for 13 days straight before getting a day off. Secret Service agents also must travel with the President at all times with little relief, further compounding the fatigue. Whether you work for the President or not, that’s a lot to ask of a person, and it’s certainly not sustainable.
We’d all like to chalk these security failures up to the rogue actions of a few bad apples, but employee fatigue is a real problem, and it infects the entire orchard. Americans work 47 hours a week on average, more so than any other developed nation, flying in the face of the medical and psychological wisdom that warns us of how it adversely affects our health. Its effects are only magnified when you throw in a high-pressure working environment that demands constant focus.
The US Secret Service has always maintained a reputation for excellence, but now it faces an uphill battle justifying its performance with a workforce that ostensibly appears to be in disarray. The effects of employee fatigue are systemic, and can disrupt an organization down to its core.
Thankfully Congress saw fit to boost funding for the Service in 2014, allowing them to add 238 additional personnel, acknowledging the agency’s shortfalls in training and recruiting, so there’s reason to be optimistic. While the actions of Secret Service agents over the past several years have no doubt been questionable, there has never been a question about whether working too many hours affects your personal health and job performance.