Biden administration orders TSA to expand union rights, explore pay reform for screeners

The Biden administration said Thursday it is taking what it called a “first step” in its efforts to align the Transportation Security Administration’s pay and personnel system with the rest of the federal workforce, a fight that Democrats and unions have pursued legislatively for years.

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas directed TSA to expand collective bargaining rights, negotiate a new contract with its union and develop a plan to pay the agency’s airport screeners General Schedule wages.

Specifically, Mayorkas ordered TSA to revise its existing collective bargaining policies, expanding union rights in a manner consistent with the vast majority of the federal workforce.

He also asked TSA to develop a plan for compensating TSOs “at a level that is no less than that of their counterparts on the General Schedule pay scale” — pending available appropriations from Congress.

“You deserve to be compensated fairly and fully for your important work,” Mayorkas said Thursday in a video message to TSA employees, which Federal News Network viewed. “We are committed to ensuring that TSA is ready to quickly implement pay reform if and when additional resources are provided in the future, and we will fight for those resources.”

Finally, Mayorkas urged TSA to review whether its current policies align with procedures applied at the Merit Systems Protection Board. Transportation security officers (TSOs) today don’t have the right to appeal disciplinary actions at the MSPB.

“Until such a time that the screening workforce is afforded statutory MSPB appeal rights, the TSA system should afford similar protections to its employees,” Mayorkas said Thursday in his directive to David Pekoske, TSA administrator and acting DHS deputy secretary, and Darby LaJoye, the senior official performing the duties of the TSA administrator.

Expanding TSA collective bargaining rights, the department said, is consistent with the administration’s plans to empower unions in both the public and private sectors, a vision that the president described in a recent executive order.

“TSA employees are outstanding public servants who work on the frontlines, including throughout the pandemic, to keep the traveling American public safe,” Mayorkas said in a statement. “They deserve the empowerment of collective bargaining and a compensation structure that recognizes and rewards them for their contributions to our safety and security.”

TSA declined to comment further.

The American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 46,000 non-supervisory TSOs, called Thursday’s announcement a major victory.

Mayorkas’ order directs TSA to work with AFGE in revising its collective bargaining determination — and propose an implementation timeline within the next two months.

The union has long pushed for legislation that would expand collective bargaining rights for TSOs and move them into Title 5, the personnel system that sets pay, benefits and performance standards for a majority of federal employees.

“It is extraordinarily gratifying to see such a significant victory today for our union and for these incredible public servants,” Everett Kelley, AFGE national president, said Thursday.

“There has never been a reason to deny them the same union and civil service rights as their counterparts in other agencies, and there is no doubt that these brave workers have more than earned the pay guarantees of the federal locality pay system — including the guarantees against pay discrimination on the basis of gender, race, sexual orientation or other differences,” he added.

When Congress first created TSA nearly 20 years ago, it specifically excluded TSOs from the General Schedule pay scale and Title 5 personnel system.

Congress instead gave TSA leadership broad authority to hire, appoint, discipline and set pay and promotions for TSOs. But the agency under multiple administrations hasn’t used those authorities — until recently.

There’s bipartisan agreement TSOs — whose annual salaries start at $29,000 in some locations — are underpaid. But Congress hasn’t agreed yet on the best path forward for raising TSO pay.

At a hearing earlier this spring, LaJoye said TSA is acting on the recommendations a blue-ribbon commission made nearly two years ago. Some 32,000 TSA workers received a 1%-2% pay raise in late April, and 4,500 TSOs with more service time were eligible for a 5% raise, he told House appropriators.

Providing targeted pay raises to TSOs was one of the commission’s recommendations; moving them to the General Schedule was not.

The panel, along with some Republicans, argued the General Schedule is too outdated and inflexible to address the needs of a modern federal workforce, much less recruitment and retention challenges at TSA.

Democrats, however, disagree, arguing the General Schedule is only clear method for raising TSO pay and improving their morale.

Mayorkas’ new directive doesn’t specify what grade level TSA should classify officers. It simply calls on the agency to develop a plan to pay TSOs comparable wages with their counterparts on the General Schedule.

The plan is due in three months.

“Appropriately compensating TSA employees, including TSOs and coordination center officers, is required to improve the morale and retention of these essential employees,” Mayorkas wrote. “Increasing pay is also dependent upon the availability of future appropriations. In the interim and with the assistance of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer and the Office of the Chief Human Capital Officer, please prepare a plan to implement the appropriate compensation measures rapidly should funding become available.”

In the meantime, AFGE said it will continue to advocate for the Rights for the TSA Workforce Act, the bill House and Senate Democrats have introduced that would codify much of Mayorkas’ directive into law. Only Congress can formally move TSOs into the Title 5 personnel system and give them appeal rights with the MSPB.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.), one of the bill’s main sponsors, said he looked forward to working with the Biden administration on passing the legislation into law.

“I commend the Biden administration for taking decisive action to improve conditions for the TSA workforce,” he said. “TSA frontline officers have been grossly underpaid and denied basic workplace rights for far too long.”

The House passed a bill similar to the Rights for the TSA Workforce Act on two occasions, but the Senate has never considered it.

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