“You’re Sad? Too Bad”

Several airport screeners argue they were short-changed by the government when their salary did not match the promise given when they were first employed. The court concludes they have a strong moral argument but do not have a legal one.

Do new federal employees have a contract or an appointment?

For most people, it would seem to be a legal distinction without any significant difference. But for a few new airport screeners, it makes a big difference.

During the transition of the screening process of airline passengers from private companies to federal employees, a company called Globe Security was asked to continue to provide security services. Several Globe employees were asked to continue to provide services for an airport. At the end of the transition period, they were told they could apply for jobs as federal employees and would receive the same salary they were currently receiving as an employee of Globe.

Several of the Globe employees were offered an appointment by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). But, to their surprise, some of these new feds found their salary was less than that promised in their appointment letters. The new federal employees never received an adjustment of their salaries to the higher amount they had expected to receive.

The former Globe employees went to the Court of Claims.

They argued that the offers they received from the government, and that they accepted, were contracts. When they did not receive the higher pay, the government breached the contract.

They also argued they were to have benefited between an agreement between Globe and TSA which guaranteed them the higher salary in return for working as a screener during the transition period.

“Hold on,” effectively cried TSA. Those letters were not binding and they were not contracts. So there was no contract and the government did not have to pay the higher amount called for in the offer of employment.

The court observed that federal employees generally hold their positions by appointment and not by contract. Moreover, there is a presumption that federal employees are appointed unless there is specific legislation indicating otherwise.

And, in this case, the court determined that there was no specific legislation that dicatated otherwise. The court observed the letter of a job offer stated “I am pleased to offer you a conditional appointment” and that [t]his appointment is contingent.”

The screeners seeking higher pay also argued they were not civil service appointees because they do not have the same civil service rights and protection as other federal employees. But this argument was also rejected by the court with the observation that “Many government employees are appointed but have no civil service protection.”

In effect, ruled the court, the screeners have a strong moral argument. TSA made promises it could not keep and should not have treated the screeners so “cavalierly,” but they do not have a legal argument in support of their position for more money. Calvin v. United States, No. No. 04-715-C, (January 12, 2005)

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47