September 10, 2009
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today passed a bill that would grant Transportation Security Administration employees collective bargaining rights and do away with a controversial pay-for-performance system.
Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said the full House is likely to vote on the bill within two weeks. But a companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate, and Kennedy wasn’t sure when the Senate might take the matter up.
HR 1881, which passed on a party-line vote, would put TSA’s more than 50,000 screeners, also known as transportation security officers (TSOs), under the General Schedule system. TSOs would also gain more whistleblower protections and more traditional federal labor rights protections, such as the ability to appeal adverse actions to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
About 36,000 screeners would also see their annual salaries increase by an average $1,700 if they are moved to the General Schedule system, according to a Congressional Budget Office study. They would not be able to strike.
Democratic lawmakers and unions say that giving TSOs more protections and regular GS pay raises is necessary to reverse low morale and high attrition. Surveys of the federal workforce consistently show morale at TSA is among the lowest in government, and one in five screeners leave the agency every year.
“When TSA was established in 2001, Congress provided the new agency with nearly unqualified authority to define all terms of pay, benefits and conditions of employment for its airport screeners,” said committee chairman Edolphus Towns, D-N.Y. “The use of this authority has created significant uncertainty within TSA.”
Gabriel Padilla, a screener at Miami International Airport and an official in the American Federation of Government Employees Local 558, said that expanded rights and protections are necessary to give screeners some stability, make punishments for infractions consistent, and keep screeners from worrying that they will lose their jobs for making small mistakes.
“There’s no uniformity in the way that they handle disciplinary actions,” Padilla said. “There’s no corrective disciplinary action like in other agencies.”
But Republicans accused Democrats of trying to go back on a compromise on TSO rights reached when the agency was formed eight years ago, and said granting screeners these protections would make it harder to discipline or remove poor performers.
“We’re making a big, big mistake,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. “Those who work for the federal government and are protected under Title 5, it’s very difficult to fire, remove and sometimes discipline them. We did not want that to be the case” at TSA.