House poised to reclassify TSA workforce

A TSA agent searches luggage at an airport.  Carolina K. Smith MD / 

The House of Representatives appears poised to back a bill that would convert Transportation Security Agency workers from their homegrown human resources track to title 5 status, giving them the right to collective bargaining and to appeal adverse employment actions to the Merit System Protection Board.

The Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act of 2020 was sponsored by Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee. Thompson explained the rationale for the bill at a March 2 hearing of the Rules Committee.

"The premise of the bill is simple but its impacts are significant," Thompson said. The bill, "would transfer all TSA employees from TSA's self-managed personnel system to the time-tested system used by the vast majority of the federal workforce."

Thompson added that transportation security officers are among the lowest paid employees in the federal workforce.

"Under TSA, TSOs are not afforded standard pay raises or retention pay," Thompson said, noting that officers with 10 or 15 years of experience at TSA still received low wages that didn't reflect their years of service.

A motion to consider the legislation passed March 5 by a vote of 220-192, largely along party lines. The bill is set to be considered sometime on March 5.

During the March 5 debate, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said the bill would have negative effects on TSA's ability to discipline employees and to implement new security measures.

"By moving the screener workforce under Title V, this bill would eliminate many of [the] critical flexibilities [TSA uses] to respond to emerging security threats. How new security requirements are implemented could be subject to negotiation with the union if this bill were to become law," Rogers said.

Rogers also said he was concerned about a provision in the bill that recognizes a 2011 certification by the Federal Labor Relations Authority that recognized the American Federation of Government Employees as the exclusive union representative for TSOs after a union election.

"The bill sets in law the exclusive bargaining agent for the screeners, and requires TSA to immediately negotiate with them," Rogers said. "Under this bill, there is no intervening union election. Screeners never get a chance to exercise their constitutional right to choose their representation. I think that's wrong."

Rogers also noted that the bill was unlikely to receive consideration in the Senate.

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), a backer of the bill and the chairwoman of the House of Appropriations Committee said the bill would instead ensure that TSOs were properly compensated for the vital national security work they performed and could be used to address the personnel and retention issues TSA faced.

"HR 1140 would improve the morale and stability of our screening workforce and help ensure safety at our nation's airport," Lowey said.

Morale has been low for some time at TSA. In its annual "Best Places to Work in the Federal Government" report, the Partnership for Public Service listed TSA as one of the lowest ranking agencies when it came to employee satisfaction scores due to factors such as high turnover rates and low pay. TSA scored 398 out of 420 subcomponents in 2019 on the survey.

AFGE, which represents almost 40,000 TSA employees, welcomed the bill.

"It's past time we protect these public servants who risk their lives every day to help us reach our destinations safely," National President Everett Kelley said in a statement.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a former staff writer and associate editor at FCW.


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