It’s been a historic year of pay raises for the 50,000 uniformed Transportation Security officers who keep American airports safe for travelers.

First, in July, this population of screeners got up to a 31% pay increase — among the largest in agency history — after a long-sought provision was included in the annual spending bill.

“Getting funding in the fiscal year 2023 omnibus appropriations act was the biggest legislative achievement in TSA’s history,” said Legislative Director Grace Bergin in a statement Feb. 6.

Then, just last month, employees were cleared for an average 5.2% raise, matching that which was given to the rest of the federal workforce by a White House executive order in December. That was the largest average raise in nearly four decades.

Recent pay bumps are huge strides for the administration and its workers who are stationed at 440 airports across the country and screen millions of passengers and their luggage each day. The workforce has long been fighting to be compensated at similar levels to their federal counterparts. A 2014 memo from the department reported TSA officers were the lowest-paid operational personnel in the workforce. Because they’ve been excluded from the Title 5 system that includes most General Schedule feds, they’ve been shortchanged on pay raises and certain employment rights.

That’s why TSA officers aren’t automatically given the governmentwide annual raise proposed by the president and why the administrator has to approve them, if he chooses to, in a separate action. He did that for this year, and the 5.2% raise took effect for the first pay period of 2024, a spokesperson said.

The fight is not over, said Johnny Jones, secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Government Employees council 100.

Just because pay increases were secured in 2023, doesn’t mean they’re permanently in place for future years. And the global health crisis sowed particular hardship on the workforce with the pandemic decimating air travel only to have it surging to 94% of pre-pandemic demand in 2023. All the while, TSA officers were working on the frontlines amid decreased staffing and difficulty filling overtime shifts even before the pandemic hit.

“The employees are very excited about being included in the 5.2% pay increase,” he said in an interview. “And when you add that in with the previous pay increases that we secured earlier in the year, it’s made a big difference to their entire lives.”

However, he said the raises must again be included in the 2024 budget, which requested $1.4 billion to support pay initiatives.

“Because they’re doing a CR, until they do a full budget with the money in it, it’s a problem,” Jones said.

The Senate’s version of the Homeland Security funding bill includes $1.1 billion to close TSA pay gaps after seeing attrition down nearly 50% since the raises were implemented. House Republicans’ version wants to strip pay increases for members of the TSA workforce that aren’t officers, like inspectors. They also refuse to fund expanded collective bargaining or merit system protections.

Now, nearly halfway through the fiscal year, TSA has not received any new money under Congress’ now thrice-renewed stopgap bill. As a result, it may have to get creative about to fund its raises, Jones said. To implement just the 5.2% raise, $250 million was requested in the 2024 budget.

The concern is that if a yearlong CR is in place or if lawmakers fail to pass a spending bill by the March 1 and March 8 deadlines, any agencies that run out of carryover money will be forced to make cuts to essential programs or personnel, as NASA recently did at its Jet Propulsion Lab.

Jones said the union is not aware of any official plans reduce staff or institute a hiring freeze to cope.

The other legislative battle ahead is to codify full Title 5 protections for TSA in a law. In 2022, TSA Administrator David Pekoske signed a workforce order expanding collective bargaining rights to TSA workers.

But because a future administrator has the power to set the terms and conditions of employment for the screening workforce under the the Aviation and Transportation Security Act, it would help to cement them in statute, Jones said.

Such a bill, the Rights for the TSA Workforce Act of 2022, passed the House in 2022 and was referred to committee in the Senate.

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.

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