Workforce

House Homeland Dems want to help TSA workers in next COVID-19 relief package

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

As some of the most visible frontline employees in the federal workforce, the coronavirus has hit Transportation Security Administration officers hard.

According to statistics from the TSA, five transportation security officers (TSOs) have died from COVID-19. As of April 30, 505 officers had contracted the illness, while 212 had the illness and recovered. TSA statistics showed that workers at airports all over the country, including one in the U.S. Virgin Islands, had tested positive, the majority of whom are screening officers.

This has raised further concerns that more could be done to protect screeners  who face high risks of being exposed to the virus through close contact with airline passengers.

Democratic members of the House Homeland Security Committee want to include a slate of legislative proposals in the next coronavirus relief package that would grant COVID-specific benefits to TSA workers.

In an April 30 remote roundtable held with American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley, Rep. Lou Correa (D-Calif.) touted Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson's (D-Miss.) Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act.

Correa said the bill had been introduced for inclusion in the next coronavirus relief package.

"COVID-19 has really presented beyond a doubt, that TSOs are frontline warriors," he said. The bill would reclassify TSA workers under Title V of the U.S. Code, granting them rights such as collective bargaining and to appeal adverse employment actions before the Merit Systems Protection Board, among other provisions.

Kelley also said he supported the bill. He added that TSA had been inconsistent in communicating to its workforce what the agency's COVID-related policies were for workers.

"TSA's [personal protective equipment] and masks policy [for TSOs] was not communicated until after the first three TSOs contracted COVID-19 at San Jose airport," he said. "TSA initially said that they presumed [TSOs] who had COVID were presumed to have gotten it on the job, but then backtracked and said it was up to the Department of Labor. They've done some things well, but those are some areas where they were slow and inconsistent."

"Use of nitrile gloves has always been required PPE during screening procedures, and was reinforced to the workforce specifically related to COVID-19 beginning on January 23 and again on January 28," a TSA spokesman told FCW via email. "TSA authorized employees to wear surgical masks on January 31."

In response to Kelley's claim that it had reneged on the presumption that COVID-positive TSOs had contracted the illness while on the job, TSA said: "The Department of Labor adjudicates all claims and benefits due to employees and survivors filed under the Workers Compensation Program. TSA will work with COVID-19 victims and families to ensure the proper paperwork is submitted."

Kelley expressed a wish to see legislation that would provide survivor benefits for the families of TSA workers who had died from the coronavirus.

"We cannot further endanger our TSOs," he said, stating that he believed airline passengers should be mandated to wear masks when flying.

"We've already lost five officers. We need to provide their survivors with benefits and recognition for public servants fallen in the line of duty."

He added that AFGE has set up a program to assist such families with filing claims for survivor benefits.

Rep. Val Demings (D-Fla.) said that she planned to introduce legislation in the near future that would make it easier for both sickened TSOs and the families of those who died to access benefits. The bill will establish the presumption that any TSO who contracted the illness and whose duties require regular contact with the public did so while on the job.

"If you die [in] the line of duty and it's due to COVID-19, the presumption should apply," she said.

Rep. Dina Titus (D-Nev.) added that she and Correa would also introduce legislation in the coming days that would allow the federal government to cover all health care premiums for TSA workers, including part-time officers.

Last fall, the TSA announced that part-time TSOs hired after Oct. 1 who worked 32 hours a week or less would pay a higher percentage of health care premiums.

"Out of pocket costs should be zero when it comes to TSOs," Titus said.

About the Author

Lia Russell is a staff writer and associate editor at FCW covering the federal workforce. Before joining FCW, she worked as a freelance labor reporter in San Francisco for outlets such SF Weekly, The American Prospect and The Baffler. Russell graduated with a bachelor's degree from Bard College.

Contact Lia at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @LiaOffLeash.


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