TSA screeners work a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in January.

TSA screeners work a checkpoint at Chicago's O'Hare International Airport in January. Nam Y. Huh / AP

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House Democrats Push Back on TSA's Threat to End Collective Bargaining

TSA administrator said he is undecided on whether unionization at TSA will continue.

House Democrats are imploring the Transportation Security Administration to continue allowing its employees to collectively bargain following a threat by the agency’s leader to terminate that right.

Frontline TSA employees first unionized in 2011 after a long-fought battle over whether employees vital to national security should be allowed to do so. Their current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire at the end of the year and the Trump administration is no longer committing to allowing its 45,000 transportation security officers to belong to a union.

“I have not made a decision yet on whether or not we will continue collective bargaining past the expiration of December 2019,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske told a congressional committee last month, “but we continue to work very closely with the bargaining unit employees and the non-bargaining unit employees.”

Pekoske added that he would “continue to work with [employees] on any workplace issues,” while noting his agency has a national advisory council composed of transportation security officers and that several security officers serve on his staff.  

The Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee wrote a letter to Pekoske on Friday saying such outreach does not replace collective bargaining, which they called critical to ensuring an adequate workforce necessary to protect the country. The lawmakers highlighted a recent inspector general report that found high attrition rates and low morale among the TSA workforce. The auditors said that while TSA hired 9,600 screeners in fiscal 2017, nearly 8,100 officers left the agency. About one-quarter of the new hires left within the first six months of their start dates.

The high attrition and inadequate staffing were leaving the nation’s aviation system at risk, the IG said. The committee Democrats agreed, writing TSA “cannot secure the nation's transportation systems effectively without a well-trained and experienced frontline workforce.” They added collective bargaining is necessary to alleviate the agency’s current workforce problems.

“Collective bargaining provides an important avenue to addressing systemic workforce issues like those identified by the DHS OIG and employees surveys,” the lawmakers wrote. “Continuing to allow collective bargaining is critical to improving retention.”

The IG reported that employees at airports in competitive job markets can earn more money at a retail store or a sandwich shop than as an entry-level screener. Those screeners earn around $35,000 in starting salary, depending on where they work. TSA ranked last out of 410 federal agencies and components on satisfaction with pay in the most recent Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Federal employees do not bargain over pay, though TSA has promised to take some proactive measures.

“What I am looking to do is to be able to exercise the full extent of those authorities to be able to improve job satisfaction with the workforce, to be able to look at overall pay and compensation issues so we begin to address them in a systematic way,” Pekoske said at a separate hearing last month.

The administrator explained that he created a “blue-ribbon panel” to examine the options for addressing compensation, which he expects to hear from shortly. TSA has promised to address pay issues by June 30. Pekoske was recently named acting deputy secretary for the Homeland Security Department, though he retains his title as TSA administrator. 

In a statement, TSA said it expects Pekoske to make a decision either this month or next.

"The administrator greatly appreciates the outstanding work Transportation Security Officers perform every day and is fully committed to continuing build on the substantial improvements that have been made during his tenure in the management of the TSA screening workforce," the agency said.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA workers, declined to comment in time for publication.