What’s Wrong with TSA’s Pay System? Everything.

Categories: TSA, The Insider

When Congress created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) in 2001 right after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, lawmakers gave the agency carte blanche to create its own personnel system for the federalized TSA workforce. AFGE repeatedly expressed our strong opposition to TSA having such absolute power, pointing out several serious flaws with the irresponsible approach. Twenty years later, we have been proven right.

Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) don’t have the same workplace rights and protections as other federal employees. Their pay is lower. As a result, the morale is low and turnover is high. TSA has been at or near the bottom in every annual employee satisfaction survey. 

According to a 2019 Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General report, TSA hired more than 19,300 new officers in 2016 and 2017 but lost more than 15,500 officers.

Because TSA has abused its authority and used it to shortchange its employees, the agency has made it harder to recruit and retain employees.

Pay is one of the most important factors that drive TSOs out.

Here’s what’s wrong with TSA’s pay system and why Congress needs to get rid of it: 

1. Low pay with little chance of promotion 

TSOs are one of the lowest paid federal employees in the federal government. The average starting salary for TSOs is about $35,000, just under $17 an hour. This has led to an exodus of workers, since they can’t make ends meet.

TSA has its own pay system for TSOs called the Transportation Officer Pay System (TOPS). Under the system, a newly hired TSO begins in the D pay band and is required to complete a two-year probationary period, during which time they can be disciplined or terminated for any reason without due process.

At the completion of probation, TSOs automatically receive the E pay band in addition to any Employment Cost Index (ECI), an annually recommended federal civilian employee pay increase. The majority of TSOs are then stuck at the E pay band for their entire career.

If a TSO can secure a promotion to a Lead TSO, they go up a half step to an E2 and a very few will advance to a one full level to the F pay-band. But the outlook from there is grim. TSA eliminated the ability of bargaining unit employees to be promoted to a G pay band position in 2017. 

2. A meager bonus that doesn’t count towards retirement 

If TSOs score high enough on the agency’s TOPs evaluation, they may be eligible for a one-time bonus or a slight increase in salary at the subjective discretion of their manager.

The TOPS “payout”—a combination of a percentage pay raise and bonus depending on evaluations and other factors—varies from year to year subject to the administrator’s instructions. Last year, the TOPs award for the highest rating of 5 – achieved excellence or 4 – exceeds expectations was a 1% pay increase. If you scored a 3 – achieved expectations, you received no pay increase.

Any bonuses a TSO may earn under TOPS are not included in TSO base salaries and are not part of the calculation for their retirement under Federal Employee Retirement System. TSOs’ lack of opportunity for salary increases today has long-term financial consequences—less retirement income later in life.

By contrast, most federal workers have been compensated under the GS locality pay system, which has been reformed and updated many times since its inception in 1949. The GS locality pay system includes step increases at various intervals to employees with satisfactory performance. When there is not a pay freeze, they also receive annual salary adjustments that include a nationwide and locality component. These pay adjustments are based on objective market data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and mirror the size and direction of salaries in the private sector and state and local government.

The GS pay system also doesn’t discriminate. People in the same job with the same level of performance receive the same salaries regardless of race, gender, age, or other attributes unrelated to the job they do for the American people. 

3. Pointless Model Officer Program 

TSA recently added a Model Officer Program that recognizes only the top 5% of the entire screening workforce, noting that any associated pay is subject to availability of funds.

In its guidelines it advises: “Model Officer Recognition is granted at management’s discretion. Meeting the minimum criteria does not guarantee or create an entitlement to a Model Officer Monetary/Non-Monetary Award and/or a Model Officer Pay Increase.”

Under this guidance, a TSO has no means of knowing whether meeting the requirements will mean anything. So the question arises: What is the point of this program?

4. Career Progression Program that isn’t 

TSA Administrator David Pekoske has advertised the Career Progression Program as a career path for TSOs that will both improve retention as TSOs move up the ladder and a means to improve pay.

Despite good intentions, the Career Progression Program does not meet those goals. The Career Progression Program only assists new-hires in receiving pay increases to an E-band level more quickly than before but does absolutely nothing for long-term employees.

TSA administrators have continued to disappoint the TSO workforce by failing to request additional funding from appropriators for a meaningful pay increase for long term TSOs. 

Going elsewhere 

In fiscal 2017, TSA spent $75 million training more than 9,000 new officers, but about 20% left within six months. 

There are reasons why TSOs often leave TSA to get a job at another federal agency shortly after being hired. They are very likely to get a significant pay increase by doing so. Their career path will become clearer and more achievable. They’ll get full civil service rights and protections under Title 5, meaning they’ll have a real voice at work and be less likely to be treated unfairly by managers.

TSA cannot provide aviation security on the cheap. TSOs put their lives on the line every day to protect the flying public. They deserve to be treated fairly and with dignity. Congress can do that by moving them to the GS pay system and giving them full Title 5 rights. 

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