Transportation Security Administration agents process passengers at Denver International Airport in Denver in June 2020.

Transportation Security Administration agents process passengers at Denver International Airport in Denver in June 2020. AP file photo

House Democrats Say Title 5 Protections Would Fix TSA’s Morale, Retention Woes

Advocates say now is the time to grant airport screeners with the same protections enjoyed by the rest of the federal workforce, including their bosses.

House Democrats on Tuesday said that more than a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, the situation where Transportation Security Administration screeners make less than other federal employees and are deprived of civil service protections has become untenable.

Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., chairwoman of the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Transportation and Maritime Security, urged Republican colleagues to sign onto and offer ways to improve legislation that would make TSA screeners Title 5 employees. That transition would grant them access to the General Schedule pay system, full federal sector collective bargaining rights, as well as civil service protections like the ability to appeal personnel actions to the Merit Systems Protections Board and whistleblower protection rights.

A similar bill passed the House last year but languished in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Currently, entry level salaries for TSA screeners start at an average of $35,000 per year, and can be as low as $29,000 annually. The agency suffers from high turnover and among the lowest employee morale among federal agencies. According to the 2019 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, TSA ranked last at 415th place among agency subcomponents in terms of pay satisfaction.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 16 TSA screeners have died from complications of the virus, while around 7,800 employees tested positive.

American Federation of Government Employees National President Everett Kelley, whose union represents TSA workers in an abridged capacity compared to bargaining units at other agencies, described a work environment of fear and intimidation, where managers, who enjoy full Title 5 protections, act with impunity. He shared the stories of several employees, whose identities he withheld over concerns of possible retaliation.

“Worker S. has worked as a screener in New York for nearly two years, where she has endured terrible harassment from her supervisor and her manager,” Kelley said. “The manager often made her uncomfortable, telling her to close the door behind her and making reference to the size of his anatomy. And her supervisor made constant threats to write her up, even declining to inform her of new COVID-related standard operating procedures and instead telling others to hang back and watch her do it wrong ... These are not isolated occurrences—they happen every single day in hundreds of airports.”

But Jeff Neal, who served as chief human capital officer for the Homeland Security Department and chaired a blue ribbon panel tasked with evaluating TSA’s personnel system undertaken during the Trump administration, said there are dangers in moving the TSA workforce to the General Schedule. He noted the impression among good government groups that the GS pay scale is antiquated and in need of an overhaul.

“Moving 50,000 employees to a different personnel system is a highly complex process requiring extensive planning,” Neal said. “Most employees, managers and HR specialists at TSA are not experienced in the GS system and most other aspects of Title 5, nor are the contractors who actually do most of TSA’s operational HR work, and not all IT systems are designed to accommodate the GS scale. The six-month transition laid out in the bill doesn’t provide adequate time to conduct the planning, systems changes and training required, and rushing implementation almost certainly ensures that it will be done badly, putting employees and the mission at risk.”

Instead, Neal advocated using TSA’s existing personnel flexibilities to redesign its own system in a way that provides for both regular “longevity” pay increases, in addition to avenues for quicker upward mobility among high performers.

But Tom Warrick, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former senior executive at the Homeland Security Department, said inaction by TSA leadership in both Republican and Democratic administrations over the last two decades suggests that is, for whatever reason, unlikely to happen. He argued that there is value in providing equality to TSA employees by allowing them access to the same pay and personnel systems enjoyed by federal employees across the government, including the screeners’ own bosses.

“It certainly would be possible to [fix TSA’s issues under its existing authorities], but the fact that it hasn’t been done for so many years would lead you to believe that it’s just not a workable solution,” Warrick said. “If you appropriate a lot more money or graded the work done at a level to generate enough employee retention, you could solve this through several ways, but of all of the options available, this is the best one on the horizon right now ... It’s certainly true that the Title 5 approach has its flaws, but the solution is to fix the flaws in Title 5, not to say that TSA employees should be denied the benefits of Title 5 simply because it has flaws.”