The government shutdown, now entering its 35th day, has spurred a new wave of sympathy for Transportation Security Administration workers, and in particular the screeners at airports nationwide. These agents already work for low and middling wages, and since late December have been asked to show up and perform their jobs for free.
Some Democrats in Congress want to make sure that when the shutdown ends, these agents not only return to work but also receive the benefits almost all other federal workers get, including higher wages and full collective-bargaining rights.
A spokesperson for Representative Bennie Thompson, chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, told The Nation that in this Congress Thompson will introduce legislation granting TSA screeners full Title 5 rights, putting them on the same footing as their colleagues in the Department of Homeland Security and across most of the federal government. Thompson and Representative Nita Lowey have introduced similar legislation in the past that went nowhere when the chamber was under Republican control. Lowey’s office confirmed that talks were ongoing to reintroduce a version of the Rights for Transportation Security Officers Act, which was most recently introduced last spring in the 115th Congress.
TSA screeners are a relatively new federal workforce—before the September 2001 terror attacks, similar airport-security functions were carried out by a patchwork of private companies and contractors. The Aviation and Transportation Security Act, passed in November of that year, created the TSA and led to one of the biggest hiring sprees by the federal government since World War II, as over 50,000 airport-security screeners were hired for duty at airports nationwide.
But a footnote in that bill kept TSA screeners from enjoying the full range of salary and job benefits given to most other federal employees, including all the other staffers at the brand-new TSA: It said the agency administrator had the right to “employ, appoint, discipline, terminate, and fix the compensation” of “such a number of individuals as the Under Secretary determines to be necessary to carry out the screening functions” laid out under the bill.
Ever since, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, TSA administrators have taken this to mean that the Transportation Security Officer workforce at airports nationwide are not entitled to the full protections given to federal workers under Title 5 of the US Code. In practice, this means airport screeners weren’t put on the federal General Schedule of salaries—so they earn a lot less than most other federal employees. New screeners can make as little as $25,000 to start, which is much less than $15 per hour; the mean annual pay for TSA screeners is is $40,160 ($19.31 per hour), according to the most recent Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
Moreover, TSA screeners can be penalized for using sick leave, and can be fired or disciplined for medical problems even if those problems don’t affect their day-to-day work. If TSA agents are fired, they cannot take their complaints to a neutral fact-finder, as most federal employees can, but rather must appeal to the same TSA brass who fired them in the first place. None of this would occur if they were classified under Title 5.
TSA screeners are unionized and belong to the American Federation of Government Employees, but they do not have the same collective-bargaining rights as other federal workers. In 2011, then-TSA Administrator John Pistole, who was appointed by President Barack Obama, issued a binding determination that TSA screeners could collectively bargain on certain matters, but these rights are well short of what federal employees enjoy under Title 5. This happened only after the International Labor Organization ruled that the US government violated international labor law by prohibiting screeners from engaging in any collective-bargaining agreement, and after the Federal Labor Relations Board approved a petition for the election of an exclusive representative for the TSA screeners.
Throughout the Obama administration, Democrats did press for full union and salary rights for TSA screeners, but Republicans routinely blocked the moves—using the specter of terror attacks to justify denying collective-bargaining rights to airport-security workers. In 2010, then-Senator Jim DeMint placed a hold on Obama’s first nominee to head the TSA because he was afraid of union rights being granted—and pointed to the attempted Christmas Day bombing in Detroit as “a perfect example of why the Obama administration should not unionize the TSA.”
Perhaps the shutdown will cause a rethink of that absurd premise: We see now what happens when these agents are mistreated. In part because existing pay levels were so low, sick days spiked almost immediately after the shutdown began because most TSA screeners are living check-to-check as it is, which has lead to dramatic safety concerns and slowdowns at airports nationwide.