Jason E. Harrington wrote about his experience as a TSA employee at Chicago’s O’Hare airport (go read the whole thing!). This quote from the essay refers to a letter that he wrote to (and was published by) the New York Times:

“The problem we have here is that you identified yourself as a TSA employee,” she said.

His letter to the Times demonstrated an attempt to take pride in his job and defend his employer. It also recommended a policy change that would allow employees a sense of agency in their work, something that to me is essential to job satisfaction and something that’s missing from a good deal of public and private jobs. He took great care to not disparage and even defend the TSA. His essay continues:

They were words I had heard somewhere before. Suddenly, the admonishment from our annual conduct training flashed through my head—self-identifying as a government employee in a public forum may be grounds for termination.

The basis for this rule is straightforward. Imagine an organization with a mission to teach math to anyone with an interest in learning. If one of the workers employed by this organization publicly endorsed the opinion that nobody uses math as an adult, that organization’s ideology would be diluted. So it is with the United States government. Most federal employes are bound by some form of this rule.

I was shocked. I had been sure the letter would fall under the aegis of public concern, but it looked as though my boss wanted to terminate me. I scrambled for something to say.

“I thought the First Amendment applied here.”

She leaned back in her chair, hands up, palms outfaced. Now she was on the defensive.

“I’m not trying to tread upon your First Amendment rights,” she said. “All I’m saying is: Couldn’t you have run those First Amendment rights past the legal department first?”

She dismissed me with the assurance that we would discuss the matter further at some point in the future.

This exchange concerns me for several reasons.

  1. Termination is a harsh punishment for engaging in civil discourse.
  2. Instead of accepting the letter as a form of feedback and acknowledging Jason as an employee with ideas that could be valuable to the TSA, his action was condemned for disregarding a rule. A wise manager would have attempted to address Jason’s concerns. Perhaps she did but that part of the conversation was omitted from the essay.
  3. As a federal employee, Jason should have received what is sometimes known as No FEAR training—typically bi-yearly training sessions on the rights of federal employees under the No-FEAR Act and the Whistleblower Protection Act/Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act; the former protecting federal employees from retaliation when reporting discrimination in the workplace and the latter protecting federal employees from retaliation when disclosing government fraud, abuse of resources or concerns for public health. TSA employees should receive information about these laws. If they don’t, that is extremely unfortunate and possibly illegal. If they do, Jason would have done well to file official complaints concerning the ineffectiveness of full-body scanning methods and concerning the veiled threat made by his supervisor. That said, it’s conceivable the complaints wouldn’t have gone far.
  4. No-FEAR and WPA/WPEA are great but as far as I know, they don’t apply to contractors doing government work. As the government becomes increasingly dependent on contract labor this limitation is gravely concerning. It is absurd that a federal employee has protected, legal channels to challenge questionable work practices while a contractor in the same position could be tried for treason. It is under this pretense that I strongly disagree that government functions should be contracted to private industry.
  5. The exchange demonstrates a crippling trait possessed by the federal government: the desire for judicial indemnity and public-facing political neutrality, no matter the cost to the public. This trait can and sometimes does neuter the consideration of (federally funded!) scientific findings in policy debates and decisions. As an advocate for research, this trait is extremely disheartening. It causes other problems too, like complicating procurement processes to the point of gross inefficiency.

Finally, I found this part of the essay quite striking:

The I.O. room at O’Hare had a bank of monitors, each with a disabled keyboard—which perfectly summed up my relationship with the TSA. I spent several hours each day looking at nude images of airline passengers with a keyboard that didn’t work, wishing I could be doing what I loved: writing. To pass the time, I phantom-typed passages on the dumb keys: Shakespeare and Nabokov and Baudelaire.

People are so much more than their jobs. American employers seem to have lost sight of this while engrossed in their efforts to squeeze efficiency out of the workforce. In some ways, the quest for economic efficiency has relieved a great deal of us from our humanity.