Elaine Thompson / AP

House Panel Advances Bill to Extend TSA Employees the Same Pay System and Workplace Protections as Other Feds

The Rights of the TSA Workforce Act would apply Title 5 protections and the General Schedule pay scale to employees at the Transportation Security Administration.

The House Homeland Security Committee voted 19-11 Wednesday to advance legislation to provide Transportation Security Administration employees with the pay, benefits and due process protections already afforded to the vast majority of federal workers.

Since TSA was established following the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, employees at the agency have been part of a siloed personnel system, where employees do not receive regular raises like most other federal workers, and lack due process, whistleblower protections and full collective bargaining rights.

As a result, screeners and federal air marshals often are paid at levels far below their colleagues throughout government—entry level screener salaries start at an average of $35,000 per year and can be as low as $29,000 annually—and employee retention is a constant challenge. According to the 2020 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, TSA ranked last at 407th place among agency subcomponents in terms of pay satisfaction. The agency is currently working to fill around 2,000 frontline vacancies.

The bipartisan Rights of the TSA Workforce Act (H.R. 903), introduced by Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., would apply Title 5 of the U.S. Code to the TSA workforce. That would bring TSA employees onto the General Schedule pay scale, and it would grant those workers access to the rest of the federal government’s whistleblower and due process protections, as well as full federal sector collective bargaining rights.

In June, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas instructed TSA Administrator David Pekoske to begin the process of changing the agency’s workforce policies to conform with Title 5.

“Frontline transportation security officers are not only underpaid, but lack the ability to build a career path, and further, federal workers at TSA lack collective bargaining rights and whistleblower protections that their colleagues elsewhere in government have,” Thompson said. “My bill fixes this once and for all by simply applying Title 5 to the TSA workforce.”

Committee Democrats beat back multiple efforts by Republicans to alter the bill, including two amendments by Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y. The first amendment would have replaced the entire text of the bill with five years worth of pay raises totaling a 17% increase in pay for TSA screeners and air marshals, as well as a $3,000 hazard pay bonus for frontline workers who encountered members of the public as part of their job. The $3,000 bonus was ultimately approved through a separate amendment.

Katko’s second amendment would have restricted the application of Title 5 only to TSA screeners, federal air marshals, and other frontline workers.

“Unlike frontline employees, D.C.-based bureaucrats under Title 5 have traditionally proven to be ineffective, inefficient, and it has shielded them from discipline and accountability,” Katko said. “I believe the existing issues with TSA HQ to be related to TSA’s common practice of aligning practices for headquarters staff with Title 5 as much as possible, which has led to frustrating inefficiencies.”

But Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., argued that exempting TSA management from Title 5 would entrench, not eliminate, improper practices at the agency, and creating a bifurcated system where one segment of the workforce is subject to Title 5 and the other is not would be “extremely difficult to manage.”

“We all understand how TSA’s special personnel authorities have resulted in underpaid TSOs, but less known are that those same authorities have been used to line the pockets of senior TSA executives,” Demings said. “In one instance, a senior manager received an annual bonus of $90,000, over three times the starting salary of a TSO. That would be unlawful under Title 5, which caps bonuses at 25% of basic pay, while under the current system, this kind of waste would continue. Simply put, management officials should not have the ability to develop the personnel system that applies only to themselves with very little regulation.”

The bill now heads to the floor for consideration by the full House.