Chairs DeFazio, Carbajal Statements from Hearing on Supporting Servicemembers to Promote a More Resilient Coast Guard
Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Salud Carbajal (D-CA) during today’s hearing titled, “Enhancing Personnel Resources to Support a Stronger, More Resilient Coast Guard.”
More information on the hearing can be found here.
Thank you, Chairman Carbajal, for calling this very important hearing. First, I want to welcome Admiral Fagan for testifying today in her first formal appearance before this subcommittee in her new role as the Commandant of the Coast Guard. I was pleased to learn that the Coast Guard workforce is your highest priority as Commandant, and I’m looking forward to the discussion today on how we can best support those talented men and women.
The Coast Guard is essential to protecting our marine environment, supporting the free flow of goods in our economy, keeping illegal drugs off our streets, and investigating maritime pollution incidents. The American people are able to set sail on a leisure boat trip, purchase goods at a shopping mall or online, and swim in clean, unpolluted coastal waters because of the noble men and women in the Coast Guard who go to work every day sacrificing for our country. It’s imperative that we support these military servicemembers who courageously serve the needs of the nation.
For such a small service, the Coast Guard produces incredible results. Last year, the Coast Guard confiscated nearly 453,000 pounds of illegal drugs having an approximate wholesale value of $7.2 billion. That’s more than half of the $13.2 billion Congress appropriated to the Service for fiscal year 2022. Yet, those same Coast Guard servicemembers have a hard time finding affordable housing and quality care for their children.
While at sea conducting icebreaking missions, maintaining aids to maritime navigation, and boarding vessels for safety compliance checks, Coasties are separated from their loved ones ashore for long stretches of time. It does not help that the Service is stuck in the 1990s with limited internet access and an inability to effectively communicate with family and friends back home. They live, work, and receive child care services in deteriorating facilities far past their service life and are expected to achieve mission goals nonetheless. They face frequent, sometimes unwelcomed, assignment relocations which can disrupt family stability, their children’s educational environments, and work routines, and inflict the chaos of a household move. We can do more to support our Coasties and Congress must ensure that the Coast Guard is receiving the resources needed to support a thriving workforce.
I am concerned with the agency’s ability to recruit and retain diverse candidates in this fiercely competitive labor market. Interest in military service is at an all-time low; of all young Americans eligible to serve in the military, just nine percent indicated an interest in doing so according to a Defense Department survey. The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered a change in workforce dynamics, altering regular work patterns and habits, and inducing demands from the labor force for more flexibility. It is against this backdrop the Coast Guard aspires to recruit 4,200 enlisted personnel by the end of this fiscal year, now just a little over two months away. I’m curious to learn more about how the Coast Guard aims to compete for talented candidates in this difficult market and ways Congress can support those efforts.
The agency is currently operating with fewer workers than it needs which impacts its ability to meet mission demands. According to a 2020 GAO report, the Coast Guard had completed Manpower Requirements Determinations—its preferred workforce assessment method—for only two percent of its workforce. I find this very disturbing as without full consideration of workforce needs, the service cannot appropriately assign its resources to complete its missions. Moreover, units operating below necessary staffing levels will stress the physical and mental capacities of available staff. This problem becomes worse anytime someone in an already understaffed unit has to take extended medical leave or paternity leave. Coasties should be able to take their well-earned leave without feeling that they’re overly burdening their shipmates.
Lastly, I want to highlight that first response is a core mission of the Coast Guard. As a life-saving service, its members witness first-hand unfortunate traumatic events sure to have an impact on their mental health. In order to bolster the resiliency of servicemembers, Congress must ensure that appropriate mental health care, and health care in general, is available and accessible for each Coastie. I look forward to learning more about how the Coast Guard intends to provide the mental health support needed for its workforce.
Thank you, Admiral Fagan, for appearing today and I look forward to your testimony.
Good morning, and welcome to today’s hearing on “Enhancing Personnel Resources to Support a Stronger, More Resilient Coast Guard”. Today, we are joined by Admiral Linda Fagan, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, who will provide insight on the state of the Coast Guard workforce, areas where more resources should be targeted for the benefit of its personnel, and challenges that exist in a time of shifting workforce dynamics.
First, Admiral Fagan, congratulations on your new role as Commandant of the Coast Guard. I am confident that your wealth of knowledge and experience will make you an excellent leader and I trust that the future of the Coast Guard is in good hands.
The Coast Guard is our country’s primary maritime law enforcement agency. It oversees a diverse array of responsibilities including search and rescue, protecting the marine environment, securing vessels, ports, and waterways, and supporting the free flow of $5.4 trillion of goods through the Maritime Transportation System.
Despite the critical role the Coast Guard plays in our national security, economy, and ensuring the safety of lives at sea, the Coast Guard is the second smallest branch in the military and chronic disinvestment in the Coast Guard has forced them to do more with less.
Unfortunately, this has resulted in deficiencies in the support and benefits offered to servicemembers and their families, including in housing, healthcare, and child care. We must do more to improve the lives of these hardworking individuals by providing the quality care they deserve.
Due to the nature of Coast Guard missions, Coast Guard stations are often based in coastal cities with higher-than-average housing costs. For some, the basic allowance for housing is insufficient, and servicemembers are forced to either make up the difference of costly rent prices with personal funds or commute unacceptable distances.
I have heard from many of my constituents that the Basic Allowance for Housing has been insufficient to meet the high housing costs in the Central Coast of California. As a result, many have had to move to areas that can be over an hour commute.
Most of the members stationed at USCG Station Morro Bay are living outside the emergency 20-minute recall area because housing costs are too expensive for their Basic Allowance for Housing.
I’m looking forward to learning more about how the Coast Guard can address the lack of affordable housing for Coasties and their families.
It has also come to my attention that much of the military-provided housing is in dire need of renovation. I’d like to hear more about the Coast Guard’s plans to address these shortcomings.
Additionally, I’m very interested in how to improve health care access for Coast Guard personnel. Some Coast Guard stations are located
in remote areas, with extremely limited access to basic healthcare services, like dental or general practitioners.
The Coast Guard’s role in law enforcement and first response requires considerable mental and physical resilience. I’m concerned that the Service has only 20 mental health professionals and is understaffed in its medical clinics and sickbays.
The search and rescue mission places a heavy toll on the mental health of servicemembers, who often face traumatic experiences. One study showed that servicemembers with depression or PTSD were nearly 25 percent more likely to leave the Service.
In order to sufficiently fulfill their duties in the Coast Guard, servicemembers must first be able to access medical services to care for their own physical and mental health.
Similarly, access to child care is crucial for long-term retention of personnel and quality of life for both servicemembers and their families. Providing adequate child care services is especially important in retaining female personnel, who face unique barriers to promotional opportunities.
Recruiting and retaining personnel is imperative for the success of the Coast Guard, as it is in all branches of the military. I’m interested to hear about the Coast Guard’s plans to recruit and retain personnel, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion, in the coming years.
Despite the Coast Guard’s efforts to improve representation of women and minorities within its workforce, the Service still struggles to reflect the demographics of the nation, and it is the least diverse branch of the military. We must build on the efforts being made to recruit and retain diverse personnel, as well as ensure that these demographics are represented in leadership roles.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Coast Guard adapted by offering increased flexibility and remote work options. Many employees continue to want this flexibility moving forward, and it will be important to carefully consider how to recruit and retain diverse personnel in a modern work environment.
Lastly, I want to highlight the great strides the Service has made in sexual assault and sexual harassment response, partly due to the insistence of Congress. However, this continues to be a pervasive problem. The annual sexual assault report from the Coast Guard was due over 6 months ago. We must hold the Coast Guard accountable and I look forward to receiving this report in the near future.
Servicemembers have always been at the core of the Service and without them mission success would not be possible. I look forward to hearing from Admiral Fagan about how we can best support personnel to strengthen our Coast Guard.
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