TSA bill passes House, promises better pay

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If the bill becomes law, Transportation Security Officers and other TSA employees would see a significant pay raise—and gain access to the same appeals processes permitted for other federal employees.

Transportation Security Agency employees received good news in recent days, as the House of Representatives passed a bill to provide them with better pay and appeal options—options like those available to other federal employees.

The bill passed on Thursday, May 12, 220-201. If it passes in the Senate and wins White House approval, TSA personnel would get pay and workforce rights much closer to parity with other federal employees covered under Title 5—including collective bargaining. Similar efforts have cropped up in Congress in the past—only to fizzle and fade into obscurity. But this year—with House passage and the Biden administration’s strong support—hopes are high.

Workers and unions are speaking out in recent months, as part of the push for passage.

“Since the inception of TSA almost 21 years ago, the [Transportation Security Officer’s] job has been to protect air travelers from harm, including terrorist attacks—and they have ably performed their duties,” declared the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents tens of thousands of TSOs, prior to the House vote. “The officers, however, are among the lowest-paid and worst treated workers in the federal government despite the importance of their job.”

That grim characterization of the working conditions for TSOs is, unfortunately, accurate. The existing law that set up an agency to harden air travel security in the wake of the 9/11 attacks two decades ago is exceedingly weak on fairness for those who perform this key role. To date, agency employees lack full collective bargaining rights or access to independent review of adverse personnel actions. They are also underpaid when compared to other feds—and excluded from the General Schedule system. The pending legislation would end all of these disadvantages, boosting pay and transitioning TSA into the GS-system.

The Biden administration already has begun instituting many of these improvements, by using executive authority. But passing a statute—to permanently improve pay and promotion prospects as well as provide TSOs with proper rights of appeal—is not only crucial for the well-being of the workers, union leaders say. These steps are also needed as key improvements for the safety of the public. Currently widespread bad morale among employees continues to be reflected in high attrition rates at TSA. For example, as the union points out, in 2019 the agency hired about 19,300 new TSOs in 2016 and 2017, but then saw about 15,500 of its workforce leave in 2019.

A number of additional surveys—such as this TSA-managed one from 2018, as well as OPM’s own annual canvass—have detailed well-known and ongoing morale problems among employees at the agency. Employee advocates argue that legislatively reforming currently substandard pay and working conditions would do much to cure workforce engagement problems, and strengthen recruiting and retention, at TSA. 

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