Thursday, 09 July 2009

Homeland Security Committee expected to approve workers' rights bill

Democrats in the House Homeland Security Committee plan to approve a bill Thursday that would finally grant collective bargaining and other workplace rights to transportation security officers (TSOs), whose ranks continue to experience high job dissatisfaction and turnover.

"The reason this is so important is that workers need to see a career path before we can expect them to make long-term professional commitments as TSOs," said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY), an original co-sponsor of the bill, on a conference call with reporters. "If we continue to treat them like replaceable parts, we are going to be forced to perpetually replace experienced staff with inexperienced staff, losing the training in which we have invested."

Lowey introduced the Transportation Security Workforce Enhancement Act (HR 1881) to provide officers at the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) with the same rights and benefits enjoyed by security officers in other agencies, like US Customs and Border Protection and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), she said.

"I think this is essential. It's in the interests of the public. If we want to feel safe when we go to the airport and we go through the screening process, we want to know we have professionals in place. The bill provides veterans preference, whistle-blowing protections, collective bargaining rights, and workplace quality standards. It's a very important bill and that's why we have so many co-sponsors," Lowey said.

The bill also would eliminate the TSA's Performance Accountability and Standards System (PASS) for pay and promotions and move screeners into the federal government's General Schedule system.

Lowey predicted the bill, which currently has 130 co-sponsors, would pass the House easily once the chamber tackled health care and appropriations bills before it this month. She did not anticipate any amendments to it in Thursday's markup session.

The congresswoman confessed that she had not consulted with TSA or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano on the bill but added that their input was not required.

"I don't think it's an issue frankly because it's in the interests of all of us to have trained and skilled TSOs and to make sure we don't have constant turnover," Lowey told

No Republicans on the committee are expected to endorse the bill, partly because it has no input from TSA, which still lacks permanent leadership in the Obama administration.

Although TSA is not enthusiastic about the bill, agency leaders would work with Congress to implement it if it becomes law, Lowey declared. In addition, President Barack Obama voiced support for providing TSOs with collective bargaining rights when he was running for office in October 2008.

Incentives to Stay

The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents about 11,000 of the 45,000 TSA screeners nationwide, called for swift passage of the bill.

"PASS and many other TSA labor and employee relations practices that ignore federal worker rights need to go," AFGE National President John Gage said in a statement. "It is essential that TSOs are afforded the same rights to negotiate over important workplace issues, due process, whistleblower protections, veterans' preference, appropriate salaries, fair pay increases, and leave policies as other federal workers...."

An audit of TSOs by the DHS Office of the Inspector General published in May 2008, found that TSA had a voluntary attrition rate of 17 percent. It also found that 50 percent of TSOs surveyed were unhappy with their work environments and cited low morale due to poor work environments.

TSA's 2008 Organizational Satisfaction Survey reported that only 22 percent of TSA employees believe their promotions are fair and transparent and only 28 percent believe they receive pay raises based on their job performance.

"I talk to these workers and I hear constant complaints because they feel they are being passed over and there isn't an organized way for them to get raises and to get the training they need," Lowey said.

Providing TSOs with a transparent system for addressing those issues would result in increased retention among screeners and boost the ranks of TSA with qualified employees with longer time on the job.

"People are still worried about a terrorist attack," Lowey added. "Using a force of highly trained, skilled TSOs is smart and cost effective. It will deter and prevent a terrorist attack and protect America's transportation system."

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