Faced with growing numbers of call outs by its workers — and images of some of them lining up for food donations — leaders of the Transportation Security Administration acknowledged Wednesday that “many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations.”
Significant numbers of TSA agents have not been coming to work, either because of financial hardship or to underscore their opposition to being forced to work without pay.
And the agency said the call outs are rising.
TSA officials would not provide specific employee totals, citing security concerns. But “the number of people calling out because of financial concerns is increasing,” Michael Bilello, TSA’s assistant administrator for public affairs, said.
“We’re certainly not in denial that as we go further and further away from having a missed paycheck and going into unknowns, it’s going to start to affect people. And people will have to make a decision: ‘Can I afford to go to work today?’” Bilello added. “People aren’t just pretending to be sick. … What we’re hearing from the workforce is the increasing reason they’re calling out is, financially, they can no longer make it to work.”
Numbers from the agency, covering Tuesday, show 6.1 percent of employees did not come to work. That’s nearly one out of every 16 workers, and a 65 percent jump in call outs from the year before.
TSA said the call outs have forced three major airports — Atlanta, Houston and Miami — to operate under contingency plans meant to address various disruptions. In this case, the disruption is the partial shutdown over President Donald Trump’s push for billions of dollars to build a border wall.
Miami temporarily closed a terminal and Houston has been operating with a major checkpoint closed.
Staffing issues in Atlanta faced painful delays Monday, when the TSA said it took nearly 90 minutes for some to make it through security. The TSA brought in extra workers from its National Deployment Force in an attempt to ease backups, and waits dropped in Atlanta on Tuesday, according to TSA figures. But the airport still warned passengers in a tweet: “#ATL is experiencing longer than usual wait times during peak travel. Please plan ahead and give yourself 3 hours to clear security.”
TSA Administrator David Pekoske last week used existing TSA money to pay workers who reported on Dec. 22, the day after the shutdown began, and to provide them with a $500 bonus for their work over the busy Christmas holiday. His effort to provide cash to his staff was intended to tide them over as they worked without pay, though officials acknowledged it is not nearly what they are owed.
Still, “they should all have [the money] by Friday via the direct deposit system,” TSA spokesman Jim Gregory said.
As the political impasse continues, the Trump administration has also recalled thousands of furloughed safety workers at the Federal Aviation Administration. But outside experts said the U.S. aviation safety system remains under significant stress, and that risks of errors are increasing as the shutdown persists.
Members of Congress have been pressing the administration about such risks, but the deadlock remains.
Sen. Edward Markey, D-Massachusetts, sent a letter Wednesday to acting FAA Administrator Daniel Elwell pointing to the “financial insecurity” facing thousands of air traffic controllers going without pay. That, “coupled with the increased hours some controllers are reportedly working to cover for existing staffing shortfalls, may introduce unnecessary stress to this high-risk job, potentially increasing the likelihood of mistakes,” he wrote.
Markey asked whether the FAA’s decision to recall thousands of safety inspectors will allow the workforce to conduct “all necessary” inspections, what steps the FAA is taking to retain controllers — more that 1,800 of whom are eligible to retire — and what steps are being taken to replace potential retirees.
“The American people need to know that their air travel remains safe,” Markey wrote.