TSA Workers Inch Closer To Obtaining More Rights

Friday, September 11, 2009

The people who protect airline passengers by stopping guns, knives and hijackers from getting on planes moved a step closer to securing the civil service protections they have long been denied with legislation approved Thursday by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The Transportation Workforce Enhancement Act, approved on a 19-to-10 party-line vote, would allow some 60,000 Transportation Security Administration employees, including airport screeners and air marshals, the right to bargain collectively. It also would place them in the widely used General Schedule, better known as the GS pay system, rather than the department's pay-for-performance structure, which is unpopular with workers.

The Congressional Budget Office says the 36,000 workers in the bottom two bands of the TSA's current compensation arrangement could get an average salary boost of $1,700 by converting to GS ranks. The pay increase makes up most of the estimated cost of the bill -- $640 million over five years.

Committee Chairman Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) said the legislation was long overdue: "It will help the agency deal with the high attrition, low morale and severe workplace injury rates that have plagued the agency since its creation in 2001."

Pro-labor Democrats echoed his remarks, while Republicans on the committee showed little love to the working men and women of the TSA. In fact, the main GOP argument against the bill was it would make it too hard to fire them.

Tennessee Republican John J. "Jimmy" Duncan Jr. said the civil service rights that the bill would give employees "serves as protection for the bad employees, the lazy, incompetent employees," and that would be unfair to the good workers who have to carry the slackers' load.

On the eve of the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.) was more alarmist. "A lazy screener can mean the death of thousands of people," he said.

That also could be true for customs, border patrol and correctional officers, but they have civil service protections.

The GOP arguments didn't sit well with about 20 TSA employees at the Rayburn House Office Building to support the legislation.

Civil service protections would force "management to do their job and not just fire anyone indiscriminately," said Dennis Acevedo, a West Palm Beach, Fla., behavioral detection officer for the TSA. The civil service process, including required warnings and counseling for freeloaders, can help turn them into productive employees, he added, speaking in his role as president of American Federation of Government Employees Local 558.

The current system has led to an "almost completely demoralized" workforce, Colleen M. Kelley, president of the National Treasury Employees Union, said in a letter to committee members. "Passage of this bill will allow TSA to become a world-class airport security agency by retaining experienced employees and reducing costs created by high attrition rates," she added after the committee's vote on the legislation, sponsored by Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.)

The NTEU and AFGE are signing up members and positioning themselves for union elections in the event that collective-bargaining rights are won.

When Congress created the TSA in 2001, it gave the new agency "nearly unqualified authority to define all terms of pay, benefits and conditions of employment," Towns told the committee. It then used that power to exempt itself from a variety of laws that govern the rest of civil service, including the rights workers have through the Merit Systems Protection Board, the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Office of Special Counsel.

The Transportation Workforce Enhancement Act, which was approved by the House Homeland Security Committee in July, would repeal the TSA's authority to have its own personnel management system. Employees would move into the regular civil service with a promise they would lose no pay.

The House passed similar legislation in 2007, but President George W. Bush threatened a veto and the measure was abandoned.

A similar White House threat is unlikely this time. "President Obama has supported these protections," Towns said.

On a related note, AFGE President John Gage welcomed President Obama's appointment of Erroll G. Southers as the new head of the Transportation Security Administration with a statement that praised his own union more than Southers or Obama.

"We are very pleased that the administration has heard AFGE on the dire need for a TSA administrator to be appointed," Gage said before listing the ways AFGE pushed for worker rights.

Southers, a former FBI agent, is the assistant chief for the Los Angeles World Airports Police DepartmentOffice of Homeland Security and Intelligence and associate director at the National Center for Risk and Economic Analysis of Terrorism Events at the University of Southern California.

The text of the legislation and the CBO estimate.

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