House Dems look to expand TSA screeners' workplace protections

The bill would move all TSA employees into Title 5 of the U.S. Code, with pay conforming to the general schedule and collective bargaining rights.

Photo credit: Jim Lambert/Shutterstock uly 27, 2019. Travelers in long lines at Denver International Airport going thru the Transportation Security Administrations (TSA) security screening areas to get to their flights.

A group of senior House Democrats reintroduced a bill on Friday to give frontline airport screeners at the Transportation Security Administration the full range of protections afforded to other feds, including collective bargaining rights, whistleblower rights and the ability to appeal adverse actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board.

This isn't the first time House Democrats have tried to move the TSA workforce into Title 5 status. A bill to accomplish the move was introduced last year.

The original law that established the TSA after the attacks on September 11, 2001 gave the TSA administrator wide powers over its personnel management system. The new Rights for the Transportation Security Administration Workforce Act of 2021 would take away those broader authorities and order the Secretary of Homeland Security to convert TSA personnel to Title 5 of the U.S. Code after abolishing the TSA personnel policies.

"It is long past time that we provide this critical workforce the pay, protections and respect they deserve," said Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss), chairman of the Homeland Security Committee. "Despite their zero-fail mission, [transportation security officers] are among the lowest paid federal employees and are denied the workforce rights available to other federal employees. This is simply unacceptable."

Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), Appropriations Committee chairwoman; Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) Oversight and Reform chairwoman; Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman; Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.), Homeland Security Transportation and Maritime Security Subcommittee chairwoman; and Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-Calif.), Appropriations Homeland Security Subcommittee chairwoman also joined in re-introducing the bill.

Many of these lawmakers cited the work of TSA employees in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Since its onset, over 6,400 TSA employees have contracted the virus, and 15 have died as a result, according to data released by the agency.

Lawmakers behind the bill also pointed to low morale in the agency and dissatisfaction with low pay rates that lag behind other feds. TSA pay satisfaction was at 30 points in 2019, according to the OPM's annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

The new bill would give TSA workers the rights and protections other feds get as Title 5 employees, including access to third party dispute resolution, pay under the General Services wage system and full collective bargaining rights.

In 2011, the agency's administrator allowed airport screeners to unionize. The American Federation of Government Employees represents TSA employees. However, those rights are still limited compared to Title 5 feds.

"Under current rules, they are not afforded the same rights to organize as other workers. This creates the dual issue of dragging down morale and hampering efforts to hire and retain skilled and qualified personnel," Coleman said in statement about the bill.

The bill also includes a section guaranteeing that the pay rates of employees don't go down in the process and one reinforcing the prohibition on striking among airline screeners. It would also create a transition period for grievance procedures and instruct the Homeland Security Secretary to work with the officers' union in planning the conversion of employees to Title 5.