Unions question TSA plan to extend whistleblower rights

The announcement that the Transportation Security Administration and the Merit Systems Protection Board are rolling out a new system to allow TSA employees to appeal whistleblower reprisal decisions met with mixed reactions from the two unions who represent those employees and have advocated for enhanced whistleblower rights.

"In theory, this new policy should prevent supervisors from retaliating against TSOs who blow the whistle on wrongdoing and security breaches," said American Federation of Government Employees president John Gage. "While these safeguards are an improvement to the current system, they fall short of affording TSOs full whistleblower protections."

Previously, the Office of Special Counsel had sole responsibility for investigating claims when TSA employees said they had been retaliated against for reporting dangerous practices, and determined whether supervisors would be disciplined or corrective action taken. Under an agreement reached by TSA and MSPB in February, agency employees can appeal OSC'S rulings to MSPB.

TSA and MSPB announced this week that they would implement the agreement. Both TSA Administrator Kip Hawley and MSPB Chairman Neil McPhie have said the new system provides an additional layer of accountability.

"The American traveling public should see this agreement as improving their safety and security," McPhie said.

But Gage and Colleen Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said they had a number of concerns about the new system, including the fact that the agreement was voluntary, rather than statutory.

"Any agreement that can be revoked by TSA on thirty days notice essentially keeps the whistleblower rights of TSA employees in the hands of management," Kelley said.

Gage also objected to the fact that the procedures for processing whistleblower complaints were subject to negotiation between TSA and MSPB. Gage said MSPB should have greater control over the process and "not negotiate with the agency they are overseeing."

NTEU said only legislative action would provide TSA employees with sufficient protection. The union favors a bill (H.R. 985) that passed the House by a narrow margin in March 2007. That measure has yet to be addressed by the Senate.

Sen. Daniel Akaka, D-Hawaii, chairman of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs federal workforce subcommittee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, have introduced their own broad update to the 1989 Whistleblower Protection Act (S. 274), which passed the Senate unanimously in December.

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