When most people think of the TSA, they think of long lines at the airport, separating their liquids, taking off their shoes, and emptying their pockets before walking through a body scanner.
When I think of the TSA, I think of a workforce that is underpaid, overworked, understaffed, and struggling to keep up with demand.
I think of the 46,000 Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) my union, the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), represents. I think about how these TSOs worked for no pay during government shutdowns and have been serving on the front lines throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, helping first class passengers through security while being treated as the second class of the federal government.
Even though TSOs are federal employees, they aren’t subject to the same law as most federal workers, Title 5. Being classified as a Title 5 employee grants workers the right to be compensated under the pay system used for most federal employees, appeal adverse actions to an independent authority, and exercise their full collective bargaining rights, protecting them from retaliation for belonging to a union. Currently, TSA workers don’t benefit from that pay scale or those workplace rights.
TSA was established by the Aviation and Transportation Security Act in response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. While this new agency provided job opportunities for nearly 55,000 Americans, the law gave the TSA administrator broad authority over how the workers would be treated and paid.
Instead of adopting the Title 5 rules that apply to other federal workers, TSA created two different personnel systems. One applies solely to TSOs, whose working conditions are based on a “determination” issued by the TSA administrator. The other system applies to all other TSA employees, including managers, and grants them most of the benefits provided to federal workers classified under Title 5. These inconsistencies have resulted in a culture of fear and intimidation where managers act with impunity towards an underpaid workforce with few rights to protect themselves.
As I told lawmakers during a congressional hearing on this issue, TSA cannot provide aviation security on the cheap. Currently, the average entry level starting salary for a TSO is about $35,000 annually, just under $17 per hour — which is not enough to sustain a family in major metropolitan areas where most airports are located. The low pay and lack of employee rights has made it hard to recruit and retain workers, resulting in high turnover rates and understaffing at many airports.
Furthermore, due to low air travel during the pandemic, TSA allowed the TSO workforce to drop from 46,000 to fewer than 41,000 officers. Now, that Americans are vaccinated and back to traveling, TSA is understaffed, resulting in mandatory overtime for workers and longer lines for travelers. In recent months about 4,000 new TSOs have been recruited, TSA wants to hire an additional 3,000 by the end of the summer, but we know that is impossible.
The Biden administration is making moves to help address these issues. Recently, they agreed to rewrite the “determination” for TSA workers, expanding their rights and improving their pay — but President BidenJoe BidenUN meeting with US, France canceled over scheduling issue Schumer moves to break GOP blockade on Biden's State picks GOP Rep. Cawthorn likens vaccine mandates to 'modern-day segregation' MORE will need Congress to act to make these changes permanent and truly solve the problem for TSA and the flying public.
TSA workers are living paycheck to paycheck, serving their country each day, and keeping us safe in airports and in the sky. They work early and late shifts, on weekends and holidays, all with the goal of keeping the American people safe. They deserve fair pay and the same rights as other federal employees. Making sure they have just that will ensure TSA can effectively recruit and retain the best security talent out there, helping resolve staffing shortages and permanently improving the speed and ease of security checkpoints for travelers.
So, if you find yourself waiting in a long line for airport security this summer, use that time to call your member of Congress. Tell them to support frontline workers and shorter lines at TSA by passing the Rights for the TSA Workforce Act.
Dr. Everett Kelley is the National President of the American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO, the largest union representing 700,000 federal and D.C. government employees.