Biden administration to increase pay for airport screeners

WASHINGTON — The Biden administration said Thursday it is moving to increase the pay and union rights for security screeners at the nation’s airports.

The Department of Homeland Security directed the acting head of the Transportation Security Administration to come up with a plan within 90 days to raise the pay of the screeners and expand their rights to collective bargaining.

The change reflects the more labor-friendly approach of President Joe Biden, granting a long-standing goal of workers at an agency created to improve airport security after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“TSA employees are outstanding public servants who work on the frontlines, including throughout the pandemic, to keep the traveling American public safe,” DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas said in announcing the plan. “They deserve the empowerment of collective bargaining and a compensation structure that recognizes and rewards them for their contributions to our safety and security.”

Lower pay and benefits than other federal workers has contributed to morale problems and high turnover among the nation’s 46,000 TSA workers who were excluded from the General Schedule pay scale and personnel system of most other federal workers when the agency was set up as a component of DHS.

The American Federation of Government Employees and members of Congress have long pushed legislation that would put TSA officers on par with the rest of the federal workforce.

“We are just asking to be put on the same scale as everyone else. We are not asking for something different,” said Hydrick Thomas, president of AFGE’s Council 100, which represents TSA officers nationwide.

Starting annual pay for TSA officers is $35,000-$39,000 and tops out at $43,000. An employee of Customs and Border Protection at the same airport would make $60,000-$80,000 after six years and have significantly better retirement and other benefits, said Thomas, who is also an officer at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City.

“The TSA are front-line workers too,” he said. “Every day we put the uniform on, we put ourselves in harm’s way.”

With the actions being taken by the Biden administration, TSA officers still won’t be on equal footing with other federal workers.

When Congress set up the TSA, it granted the agency administrator broad authority over the procedures, discipline and compensation of the workforce. That isn’t changing with the directive announced Thursday.

In the memo laying out the administrative actions, Mayorkas said TSA officers pay should be “no less” than their counterparts in the federal workforce. They will be granted new access to grievance procedures but their collective bargaining rights would only “closely mirror” those provided under law to other federal employees.

Mayorkas said he has directed the acting TSA administrator to work with the American Federation of Government Employees on a new collective bargaining agreement with the non-supervisory members of the workforce.

It will be “similar” to other federal agencies but the new agreement will preserve “TSA’s ability to meet its critical security mission,” he said, without providing further details.

A bill in Congress, which has twice before passed the House but not been considered by the Senate, would put TSA officers in the General Schedule along with other federal workers, give them access to an independent third party for dispute resolution and ensure the measures being taken under Biden could not be undone by a new administration. Federal employees do not have the right to strike.

One of the legislation’s authors, Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat who chairs the Homeland Security Committee, said the new action by the Biden administration is “significant progress” but isn’t sufficient. “TSA frontline officers have been grossly underpaid and denied basic workplace rights for far too long,” he said.