Despite the important work they do protecting the flying public, frontline Transportation Security Administration officers (TSOs) are the lowest paid employees within TSA and among the lowest paid employees in the federal government. Even within their local communities, TSA officers report that retail and food stores often offer comparable or better salaries.
Low pay is one of the reasons TSA has not been able to retain officers despite spending tens of millions of dollars a year hiring and training them. According to the IG report released March 28, TSA hired more than 19,300 TSOs during fiscal years 2016 and 2017, but it lost more than 15,500 during the same period.
Why can’t TSA just pay officers more? That’s because TSA has its own pay system and has resisted our union’s repeated calls to move the TSA workforce under the General Schedule pay scale, which covers most federal employees. Agency officials have claimed their pay system is better because it’s performance based. But the TSA's low pay scales have failed to retain most employees.
However, at a TSA congressional budget hearing on April 9, TSA Administrator David Pekoske revealed the real reason why the agency has resisted years of repeated calls to move to the GS system.
Responding to Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-N.J.)’s question over whether TSA has considered moving the TSO workforce to the GS system and if doing so will help with retention, Pekoske said the agency is in the process of doing a classification study of its entire workforce.
“Some of our initial work, however, indicated that if we were to make the entire TSA workforce part of the GS schedule, it will be hundreds of millions of dollars in additional expenses per year, which creates some challenges for us from the fiscal perspective,” he told members of Congress.
This stunning acknowledgement has confirmed what we already know – that TSA’s pay system is NOT performance-based as claimed. Instead, it is a pay system designed to keep the officers’ pay low despite the important work they do protecting the flying public and exposing themselves to dangers on a daily basis. It is telling Pekoske has never stated that he requested the additional funding from Congress necessary to move the TSO workforce to the GS pay scale or to provide the substantial pay raise sorely needed. TSA continues to make, technology and canine units a budget priority, yet there is no effort to invest in the foot soldiers of aviation security—the TSO workforce.
Considering the high cost of hiring and training employees just to lose them six months later, TSA is not saving money, but rather wasting taxpayer dollars.
Rep. Watson Coleman responded that she still thinks TSA officers’ pay is too low and wants to hear Pekoske’s suggestions on how to fix the problem at some point.
Other lawmakers voiced a similar concern over TSOs’ low pay.
“TSA employees ought to make more money. I mean, they are the protection between us and the bad guys,” said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.). “The turnover seems to be really high. That means we’re not paying competitive salaries. I’m deeply concerned about that and hopefully you can make some suggestions to us on what we need to do.”
Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) faulted TSA and the Trump administration for the agency’s retention problem.
“Administrator Pekoske has acknowledged that better pay and increased staffing would result in lower attrition and better mission execution, and he has the authority to grant pay increases, if funded. However, the FY 2020 budget request for TSA fails to include funding for salary increases,” he said.