Opinions

OPINION: Transportation Security Officers help keep Alaska safe. Congress should have our backs.

Every day, Transportation Security Officers, or TSOs, work long hours to ensure the safety of thousands of people flying in and out of Alaska. People tend to take our jobs for granted. You’re more likely to hear about long wait times or annoyance about taking off your shoes than you are about the important work we do. What you don’t hear about are the weapons we confiscate, the threats of violence we deal with, and the grueling work hours we endure in order to keep America’s skies safe.

Our job is vital to the protection of our country. Unfortunately, after decades of mistreatment, it’s becoming harder and harder for us to do that job.

The Transportation Security Administration, or TSA, is currently facing a hiring crisis at airports across the country. Airports are understaffed, resulting in long lines, unpredictable schedules, and more work for the TSOs currently on the job.

Here in Alaska, the lack of TSOs has led the agency to ship in officers from other states at great cost to this agency and taxpayers. These out-of-state officers are paid an extra $15,000 on average for one year of work in Alaska. The extra money could be used to increase the pay and retention of Alaskan TSOs instead, improving our local economies, increasing TSO morale and improving our ability to serve the public.

At some airports, TSOs are expected to work mandatory overtime to meet demand and make sure security is running smoothly. All the while, the increased stress and disorganization leads to many TSOs quitting in the first few months on the job despite months of training.

This disorganization is not only a waste of taxpayer money and the agency’s time; it’s a security risk, as there simply aren’t enough TSOs to ensure that the work is being done both efficiently and safely. TSOs are still able to safely screen passengers, but the staffing shortfalls mean longer hours, unstable schedules, and more and more turnover at the agency. The main issue in terms of hiring may also be the easiest one to fix: Our pay is far too low and doesn’t reflect the skilled work we do. Transportation Security Officers are some of the lowest-paid federal employees. When paired with the stress of the job, it’s not hard to see why many current and potential employees instead choose to work for other agencies or the private sector. Since its creation, TSA officers have lacked the same rights and consistent pay scales that other federal workers are guaranteed. Until 2011, our union even lacked the right to bargain over workplace conditions. While some bargaining rights were granted, we still lack many of the same rights that most federal workers are entitled to. It’s no wonder that many potential TSOs simply look at the job as a steppingstone to other government jobs instead of a long-term career.

Hiring shortfalls have plagued the agency since its inception. Luckily, long overdue legislation in the U.S. Congress would address the pay issues facing TSA. The National Defense Authorization Act has passed the House and now awaits approval in the Senate. The House bill would move TSOs to the same pay scale that most other federal employees enjoy. Not only would this increase the pay for existing workers and help improve the agency’s high turnover rate, but it would also help address the hiring crisis.

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As a member of AFGE Local 1121 representing TSOs at Sitka Rocky Gutierrez Airport here in Alaska, I see firsthand how the lack of employees with the agency affects the day-to-day operation of our important work. The opportunity the NDAA presents would be a huge step in the right direction toward improving the working conditions of TSOs and the safety of America’s passengers while providing an excellent career for working Alaskans. That’s why I’m encouraging Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan to take a public stand in support of the House language in the NDAA.

We’ve kept America safe for more than two decades. It’s high time our representatives in Washington, D.C., show us that they have our backs.

Breezy Canford is a member of AFGE Local 1121, which represents workers at airports across Alaska and Washington.

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