This summer, Transportation Security Administration employees will likely see their pay improve after the 2023 omnibus spending bill committed $398 million toward increasing salaries.
TSA officers have been paid nearly a third less than their colleagues in the rest of government, a discrepancy which the boost in funding would mitigate, effective July 1.
“One of the long-standing challenges at TSA has been the pay gap between TSA’s frontline workforce and their counterparts in the rest of the federal government,” TSA Administrator David Pekoske said in a March statement when the budget process began.
The budget also included $61 million for new hires and $94 million to retain “exit lane” staff to support the work of more than 50,000 transportation security officers employed with the agency. It also directs the agency to inform Congress on the challenges of recruiting and retaining federal employees in rural areas.
Budget constraints have stifled pay progressions for TSA employees, according to a 2022 workforce strategy report to Congress. Historically, base pay of TSA officers stagnated as that of other employees increased, all while turnover for officers have been higher than the average.
While many government agencies have the problem of a retiring workforce, in 2017, more than half of TSA employees were entry-level security officers, making a strong case for fortifying the recruitment pipeline and ensuring new hires stay on the job.
“During [fiscal years] 2016-17, TSA hired more than 19,300 TSOs, yet lost more than 15,500 during this same period,” a 2019 Department of Homeland Security inspector general report found. “TSA spends millions annually to hire and train new TSOs to replace those who leave the agency.”
Hiring at TSA for officers has been at least an eight-step process from application to acceptance, taking an average of 183 days when factoring out delays on the applicant’s behalf.
Moreover, the DHS Office of Inspector General linked staffing weaknesses at the TSA to overall security concerns at airports across the country. The three largest airports, representing 92% of transportation security officers, had an attrition rate of 17%. The smallest airports, representing 8% of that workforce, had an attrition rate of about 19%.
Pay seems to be a clear factor underlying recruitment, retention and attrition, especially for government jobs, and even more so for those that are by their nature dangerous or outside the 9-to-5 office setting; it’s why federal union leaders of TSA employees have pushed so hard on this single issue for years.
An average front-line, non-supervisory TSA officer makes about $37,000 a year.
“These transformational improvements to pay and [bargaining] rights were made possible by 20 years of activism on behalf of union members at the TSA, and I thank these AFGE leaders for their tireless efforts to remedy the shameful treatment of employees at TSA,” said Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the largest federal union representing more than 44,000 TSA employees.
The agency ranked near the bottom of the best places to work in government by the Partnership for Public Service’s 2021 poll. And in the latest governmentwide Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, pay satisfaction for federal employees hit a new low in the last five years.
Unlike the majority of federal employees who are paid under the General Schedule, transportation security officers fall under the excepted service, which means they are not subject to the same appointment, pay or classification rules as Title 5 employees.
It’s the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, signed by former President George Bush after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2021, that gives the agency the authority to set its own compensation for security screening personnel.
The legacy pay system in place — the same one that has been criticized for falling behind — is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Core Compensation System, which uses so-called pay bands that set a range for the minimum and maximum pay. Employees can receive in-band increases and promotions based on their accomplishments.
Shaking off the dust from that legacy system and aligning its pay rates with the General Schedule is what federal labor unions and leaders at the agency have been pushing for.
“As a transportation security officer myself, I know firsthand the frustrations of the TSOs we represent,” said Hydrick Thomas, president of AFGE Council 100. “Our members work at airports across the United States, at every hour of the day, to protect our nation. For too long, that work was taken for granted.”
Even before the $1.7 trillion spending bill was signed by President Joe Biden on Dec. 29, the agency pushed through a few initiatives in recent years to partially address the pay problem.
The agency implemented “service pay” for transportation security officers to provide annual salary increases to reward experience and skill mastery. Another program, implemented in 2018, raised the salary of certain transportation security officers by 5% after completing additional training.
TSA also kick-started an awards-based recognition program. TSA completed the first quarter payouts for these awards in fiscal 2022, resulting in more than 5,000 time-off and monetary awards totaling more than $1.2 million.
A spokesperson for the agency told Federal Times now that the pay equity plan passed with the budget, service pay will be discontinued since transportation security officers will receive annual salary increases. The Model Officer Recognition and Career Progression programs are currently under review.
Molly Weisner is a staff reporter for Federal Times where she covers labor, policy and contracting pertaining to the government workforce. She made previous stops at USA Today and McClatchy as a digital producer, and worked at The New York Times as a copy editor. Molly majored in journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.