45,000 airport screeners, AFGE, celebrate big raise
Airport screeners have received substantial wage increases. | Elaine Thompson/AP

WASHINGTON—One young airport screener at Washington National Airport had to live with her parents even though she had a full-time job as a Transportation Security Officer, the official name for the screeners. Why? Her pay was too low…way too low.

A second screener, like the first only seven months into the job, rented a room in a shared apartment for $1200 a month. That’s out of her $2000 monthly paycheck.

“How are you gonna eat?” asks her local union president, Hydrick Thomas.

And a third screener, another young woman, did the same, both to save money but also so her parents could care for her kids while she went off to work. She couldn’t afford paid child care.

Welcome to the impoverished world of the nation’s 45,000 airport screeners, who run the checkpoints, perform electronic body scans, and X-ray your luggage, all so you can safely fly.

Impoverished until this week, that is.

That’s when raises, which their union, the Government Employees, lobbied for and won, kicked in during the last months of fiscal 2023. They’re retroactive to when they began work, in many cases years ago. The increases bring the screeners’ pay in line with that of other lower-level federal workers. Until now, their pay was far less. That, plus stress, made their annual turnover high.

The screeners got big retroactive pay bumps in their checks, which put smiles on their faces. Raises ranged from 5% for those on the job for less than a year to 31% for those who’ve logged 20 years checking passengers in. They stayed at work as their pay fell farther and farther behind the feds’ regular pay scale.

“The raise is nice. It goes to buy groceries,” one of the woman screeners said.

The achievement led to an early-morning press conference/celebration at Washington’s National Airport, one of the nation’s busiest travel hubs, which is only getting busier. Passenger traffic there, now that the coronavirus pandemic is largely curbed, is up 30% over the year before, one speaker said. And the screeners must handle everybody.

The raise is great for the workers, one of whom joyfully texted AFGE Local 100 President Thomas that morning that “I looked electronically in my bank account and I couldn’t believe what I saw!”

Thomas, whose local represents the screeners, started as one at LaGuardia Airport years ago. He shares their joy. But he said in a post press-conference interview there’s still more work to do.

Thomas explained the raise for the screeners was in the fiscal 2023 money law for the Homeland Security Department, which employs the screeners. That fiscal year ends Sept. 30. The new fiscal year, 2024, starts Oct. 1, and some of the speakers and the workers worry the House’s ruling Republicans will junk the raise.

The text of the money bill for 2024, approved by the Republican-run House Appropriations Homeland Security subcommittee, shows the answer—for the coming fiscal year—is “no cuts.” The measure specifically includes “$856 million more to fund pay raises” for the screeners, a Republican summary says.

Even so, there’s a roadblock: The House quit on July 27 for its August congressional recess, and its Homeland Security money bill was nowhere close to a vote.

The screeners did even better in the Senate version of the money bill, which the full Appropriations Committee passed the same day on a bipartisan 24-4 vote. “The bill includes $1.1 billion to align TSA workforce pay with the rest of the federal workforce, retain staff, and reduce wait times for passengers as part of an effort that was initially funded in fiscal year 2023 and implemented in July 2023,” a summary says.

“This initiative allows the Transportation Security Administration to address recruiting and retention challenges while the agency works to respond to an increase in travel volumes. Since the initiative was announced, TSA attrition is down nearly 50% compared to the beginning of fiscal year 2023, while hiring is up.”

The way to lock in the raises, Hydrick and AFGE President Everett Kelley said, is to give the screeners full civil service rights, just like other federal workers. That means collective bargaining over everything but pay, along with the worker rights, such as grievance procedures and due process, other feds enjoy. Screeners’ pay, like that for other federal workers, would be on the regular civil service pay scale.

On worker rights, though, the new House money bill throws up a ban. Its Republican summary says “No funds shall be spent for expanded collective bargaining rights or merit system protections.”

Which means, as Hydrick acknowledged, the union still must advocate for the screeners. If they get those protections, the Transportation Security Officers won’t have to worry about low pay—or about losing their worker rights. That’s what happened to them when their agency was first set up and they were first hired, under Republican George W. Bush. He banned their unionization, on “national security” grounds.

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Press Associates
Press Associates

Press Associates Inc. (PAI), is a union news service in Washington D.C. Mark Gruenberg is the editor.