TSA’s biggest challenge in two decades? Securing better pay for frontline workers, leaders say

Securing better pay for the Transportation Security Administration’s frontline officers is one of the toughest challenges the agency has grappled with in its 20-year history, current and former administrators said this week.

“The thing that I’ve found most challenging is… to ensure we that we adequately compensate our workforce,” current TSA Administrator David Pekoske told the House Homeland Security Committee Wednesday during a hearing on the agency’s 20th anniversary. “I’ve found no one disagrees with that at all. Everyone agrees. It’s just finding the funding to be able to execute on that very important priority for all of us, and that’s one of my very top priorities.”

His predecessors agreed.

“Getting adequate pay to the frontline is critical and key,” said former TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, who led the agency between 2015 and 2017. “It’s a very challenging and demanding job out there. One of the things that really struck me when I came to TSA was how skilled those frontline TSOs are in that job. The average American citizen and the average traveler has no appreciation for what it takes to be good at what they do out there.”

The agency told Federal News Network earlier this month it had submitted a compensation framework to the homeland security secretary for his review. The plan, an agency spokesman said, which would ensure “TSA employees are paid no less than their counterparts on the General Schedule scale and its longevity-based pay progression.”

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas called for such a plan back in June, when he ordered TSA to explore higher salaries, expand collective bargaining and allow TSOs to appeal certain disciplinary actions with the Merit Systems Protection Board.

The agency accomplished that last task earlier this week when it finalized an agreement with the MSPB. TSOs can now appeal removals, demotions and some suspensions with the board.

Of course, TSA needs more funding to raise salaries for their officers. House Democrats on multiple occasions have introduced legislation that would permanently move TSOs into the Title 5 personnel system, giving them the same pay rates that other federal employees have under the General Schedule.

Republicans have previously said the General Schedule is too outdated and inflexible to resolve the agency’s longstanding challenges with recruiting and retaining talent.

But on Wednesday the top Republican on the House Homeland Security Committee said he would agree to move TSA officers into the Title 5 pay and personnel system, as long as Congress and TSA can’t secure some other solution to raise salaries for frontline workers.

“Since I’ve been in Congress we’ve been talking about getting better pay for the frontline workers, and we’ve made minimal progress in that regard,” Rep. John Katko (R-N.Y.) said. “That’s why I broke from my opposition to Title 5 funding and said I was going to support it. Let that be a warning that if we don’t get this issue fixed I’m going to support it going forward. I think people in the headquarters get paid quite a bit of money, and they’re doing just fine. I’m worried about the frontline workers, and I’m worried about their ability to have adequate pay given the very serious job that they have.”

In some large metropolitan cities, TSA officers could earn more working in food service than they currently can at the agency, said Angela Bailey, the DHS chief human capital officer.

“I know Mr. Pekoske is fully supportive of the efforts that we’re making to ensure that we raise the pay of our TSOs,” she said Thursday at a hearing on DHS management challenges. “It is a primary concern of ours and something we intend to address.”

DHS consistently sits last among large cabinet agencies on the Partnership for Public Service’s annual Best Places to Work rankings.

But the department’s largest components — TSA and Customs and Border Protection — drag those scores down, Chris Currie, director of the Government Accountability Office’s homeland security and justice team, told Congress at a Thursday hearing on DHS management issues.

“What we’ve seen is that more focused oversight and attention is needed on the components and more accountability by their leadership,” he said. “It is very hard for top-level DHS action to trickle deep into the components to make change. Component heads and management are the key to making progress in their respective agencies.”

Pekoske said TSA employees should have more opportunities to advance through the ranks, another area that’s been a challenge for the agency’s frontline workers.

“I predict that we will have a more and more specialized workforce. As technology continues to improve, we continue to hone our procedures,” he said. “With that will come more clear career paths for our employees, greater overall professional development opportunities for them and greater diversity in our workforce. We have one of the most diverse workforces in the federal government at the entry-level and at the frontlines of our workforce at our screening checkpoints.”

TSA, however, struggles with diversity within the upper leadership ranks, Pekoske acknowledged.

“We need to fix that, and we need to fix it properly,” he said.

Pekoske said TSA recently stood up an inclusion action committee, and the agency has created a diversity, equity and inclusion leadership position that will report directly to him.

64% of DHS employees are vaccinated

The department is also grappling with the Biden administration’s recent vaccine mandate for federal employees. All federal employees must be fully vaccinated by Nov. 22.

Some members expressed concern with the deadline, especially since it’s close to the beginning of the holiday travel season. Rep. Diana Harshbarger (R-Tenn.) said she worried TSA would lose staff over the vaccine mandate, and she expressed concern small airports in rural locations won’t have enough officers to operate.

“We want to make sure we fully engage the workforce with what the intent is of the administration’s vaccination program,” Tex Alles, the department’s deputy undersecretary for management, said. “We want to encourage them. We certainly don’t want to lose employees over vaccinations. That’s our starting point as we work this down.”

About 64% of the DHS workforce is vaccinated, Bailey said.

“We’re going to put a full-court press on educating our workforce, make sure we get them as many facts as we can so that they can make an informed decision. We’ve provided them a timetable of when they need to have their first shot and their second shot. We’re working with OMB and Privacy and Civil Liberties to make sure that we have a reasonable accommodation process put in the place to address anybody who has a medical or religious exemption. We are not in the business of removing our employees.”

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