Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle want the agency to resolve longstanding compensation issues for the frontline Transportation Security Administration workforce.
Transportation Security Administrator David Pekoske told lawmakers on Wednesday that addressing low pay for airport screeners is a top priority and that he'd soon sign a directive extending full collective bargaining rights to screeners.
"I would note that we have made attempts and we have made some progress increasing pay, but it's not good enough," Pekoski said at a hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee. "We spend a lot of money with people that come into TSA, and … the number one reason they leave is because of pay. It's very expensive to recruit and retain people without an adequate pay structure."
The agency, which has long struggled with low morale, high turnover and pay dissatisfaction among its screening workforce, was initially pushed by the Department of Homeland Security in June to give enhanced bargaining rights to transportation security officers and negotiate a new collective bargaining agreement with the American Federation of Government Employees. AFGE currently represents TSA screeners, but their bargaining rights are limited.
DHS also ordered TSA to work on a plan to pay airport screeners rates in line with the general schedule.
When the agency was initially created, it was given broad power to make its own personnel system, but Democrats on Capitol Hill and AFGE have been pushing to move the TSA workforce into Title 5.
This conversation about pay at the agency comes days after frontline TSA screening employees received appeal rights at the Merit Systems Protection Board thanks to an agreement between the two agencies.
The new MSPB rights will cover all full-time and part-time transportation security officers who aren't in a trial period, Pekoske said in a message to the TSA workforce. They'll be able to file appeals, and the MSPB will issue decisions for adverse action appeals in the same way as it does for other feds.
Next up is a directive giving full collective bargaining rights for screening workers. It's coming "very shortly," Pekoske said.
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), chairman of the committee, said he will continue to pursue legislation to would move TSA screeners into Title 5, a category that covers much of the federal workforce and also guarantees access to whistleblowers protection and the general schedule salary plan.
"[A] change in the law and significant funding will be needed to provide TSA workers with the workplace rights and the competitive pay they deserve."
In the past, Republicans had expressed reluctance to take away the flexibility currently afforded to the agency and move workers to the general schedule.
Committee ranking member Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) cautioned Pekoske, saying that "since I've been in Congress, we've been talking about getting better pay for the frontline workers, and we've made minimal progress in that regard." He added that if "we don't get that issue fixed," a Title 5 bill might be needed.
"So let that be a warning that if we don't get that issue fixed, I'm going to support it going forward," Katko said. "It's well past time for us to institutionalize that salary for them."
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