John Bazemore / AP

House Panel Advances Bill Granting Full Rights to TSA Workers

Currently, employees at the Transportation Security Administration do not get annual raises along with workers on the General Schedule, and have significantly curtailed rights to collective bargaining and appealing adverse personnel actions.

The House Homeland Security Committee on Wednesday voted 17-9 to send a bill that would provide full Title 5 rights to employees of the Transportation Security Administration to the floor for consideration by the full House.

When Congress created TSA following September 11, 2001, it chose not to include its employees in Title 5, citing the need for flexibility as the agency’s operations and mission developed.

As a result, the TSA administrator currently has full discretion to set the pay and benefits of the agency’s employees, and TSA employees are unable to appeal adverse personnel actions to an independent review board like the Merit Systems Protections Board. Additionally, although President Obama granted employees the right to unionize, their collective bargaining rights are significantly curtailed compared with employees at other agencies across the government.

The Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act (H.R. 1140), introduced by Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., would grant TSA employees the rights enjoyed by the vast majority of the federal workforce, including access to the General Schedule pay system. The bill also instructs the TSA administrator to consult with the agency’s union, the American Federation of Government Employees, on the transition to the Title 5 system.

“The TSA administrator has full discretion to set pay and benefits for employees, but thus far he has used his flexibility to benefit senior management, not the frontline workforce,” Thompson said. “One senior manager for example was given $90,000 in bonuses in a single year, a practice that would be prohibited under Title 5. In contrast, transportation security officers are among the lowest paid federal employees.”

According to the 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, the TSA ranked last at 415th place among agency subcomponents across the federal government when it came to pay satisfaction. The low pay, morale and lack of worker protections mean turnover is unusually high at the agency, Thompson said.

“In 2017 alone, TSA spent $16 million to hire and train 2,000 people, who then left within six months of being hired,” he said. “A stable and professional workforce, with more experience and training, will also assist TSA in addressing existing security vulnerabilities and covert testing failures.”

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., ranking member of the committee, said he opposed the bill because he said TSA still needs flexibility to address changes in the security landscape.

“Current law allows the agency to move screeners between duty stations to alleviate crowds and long lines, but under this bill, that authority would be curtailed,” Rogers said. “The agency currently can improve security requirements when intelligence indicates a terror threat, but under the bill, that could be subject to negotiation with the union.”

Rogers also objected to the provision of the bill instructing the agency to work with the union on transition toward Title 5.

“I don’t think it’s fair to dictate which union gets to represent the 45,000 person workforce, but that’s just what this bill does,” he said. “This bill sets the exclusive bargaining agent for screeners and requires TSA to immediately negotiate with them. Under this bill, there’s no intervening union election.”

TSA employees held their union election in 2011, selecting AFGE as their exclusive bargaining agent.

Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev., said that contrary to Rogers’ assertion, Title 5 still allows agencies to make workplace adjustments, including relocations, as needed, particularly in the national security sector.

“Under Title 5, agencies have the ability to waive employee notice requirements and expedite personnel actions against employees accused of criminal activities,” she said. “[Other] workforces with security missions operate well under Title 5, including Customs and Border Protection, Border Patrol agents, and security personnel at the departments of Defense, State, Commerce and Justice.”

The bill currently has 238 cosponsors, making it likely that it will pass when it reaches the House floor.