The United States’ partial government is, as of Sunday, in its 23rd day, and it is the longest in US history. Over 800,000 government workers have been either furloughed or, like 51,000 agents with the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), are working without pay.
A TSA screener makes on average $35,000 per year, and many workers can’t afford to miss a payment. (Government workers missed their first paycheck on Friday.)
“We have people that work from paycheck to paycheck and there’s quite a few of them,” said Vincent R. Castellano, National Vice President for the worker union’s second district, which encompasses the Northeast.
Financial hardship, according to Hydrick Thomas, President of the T.S.A. Council of the American Federation of Government employees, could cause workers to quit their jobs; some have already done so. Other workers are regularly calling in sick. TSA Spokesman Michael Bilello said that 7.7% of TSA employees too an unscheduled absence on Sunday, compared with 3.2% last year.
Agents across the country report that morale is at an all-time low.
“It’s difficult to budget things like food, or knowing which bills to pay, when you simply don’t know when you’ll have money again,” said an agent at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.
“It is getting harder to come every day and know that you’re not getting paid, but it’s my job, and I knew when I started this job that this was potentially going to happen,” said a screener Los Angeles International Airport. “So I’m going to come in, but if there is any other reason that I have to call out, I’m not going to hesitate to do it.”
“I live 45 minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson, so, just burning gas for no reason. After a while I am going to need to make a decision – is it really wise for me to keep doing it?”
Some agents report to work and keep their uncertainties quiet.
“It’s like you feel that silent tension that’s going to build up later on,” said an agent at New York JFK. “How long can we go forward when [the shutdown] actually affects your fundamental needs? If it continues for a year, then the question is can you survive?”
Other workers feel that they are being let down.
“It’s demoralizing, because you go to work, and you expect pay for hard work and you wake up and your bank account is empty,” said an agent at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta. “Everyone is angry, everyone is upset, and everyone is scared because we don’t know how we are going to provide for our families moving forward. When you work for the government the first thing you do is take an oath to protect this country and the Constitution, and right now, this country is letting us down.”
Agents, who remain anonymous because they fear repercussions, say that creditors like banks and mortgage agencies don’t have programs to this kind of situation. Though the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) gave federal workers like TSA agents letters expressing inability to pay rent, workers have had trouble paying debts like rent that cannot, or will not, be put off.
Though many airports are fully operational, some, like Miami International, have made some changes. Miami closed Concourse G at 13:00 on Saturday. The concourse will remain closed through Monday, and flights that normally travel through it will operate through different gates. Terminal B’s Checkpoint at George Bush Intercontinental Airport has also been shut down.
Should the shutdown continue, more serious issues, including both TSA screeners and Air Traffic Controllers, could become apparent.
“While we are doing the day-to-day tasks there’s a lot of things that are falling through the cracks,” Richard Kennington, a tower controller at Portland International Airport, told ABC News. “There’s a lot of insidious stuff that the flying public doesn’t see that’s not happening.”
CNN reports that a passenger was able to sneak a firearm through TSA in Atlanta. “TSA has determined standard procedures were not followed and a passenger did in fact pass through a standard screening TSA checkpoint with a firearm at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport on the morning of January 3,” a press release said. The passenger eventually told crew members about his weapon, and Delta alerted the TSA.
So far, air travelers have not faced severe waiting times due to the shutdown. Airlines are seeing a dip in passengers that is standard after the holiday rush. TSA agents will be under unbearable pressure, however, should the shutdown continue into busier travel times. At that point, there may be an unparalleled exodus of employees looking for paying jobs, which will put even more stress on agents who stay.
“Our policies and screening procedures aren’t being done any less thorough, but it’s likely they may take longer the more officers we become short,” said the worker at O’Hare.
The TSA is already looking into ways to streamline operations. Officials are meeting with airlines to discuss ways to consolidate the screening process to keep lines manageable.
Bilello has reported waiting times on Twitter. On Thursday, the longest lines, which were about 36 minutes long, were at Newark Liberty International Airport. The shortest lines, at Boston Logan, took only seven minutes. Though final reports for Sunday are not available, Bilello reports that 99.9% of passengers in the US have waited 30 minutes or less at checkpoints.
“I am connected to the field & fully understand the strain our employees & their families are experiencing. Yet, due to the commitment & resolve of the TSA work force, the traveling public has confidently traveled securely around the clock as high-level of travel volume indicate,” said David Pekoske, an Administrator of the TSA.
For now, workers have a small incentive to return to work. On Sunday, agents were promised one day’s pay and a $500 bonus. On Friday, Pekoske tweeted that agents who worked on December 22, the last day in the period, will receive compensation by Tuesday
“To every TSA employee– despite personal hardships and professional challenges, we’ve rallied and never once compromised the security of our nation’s transportation systems,” Pekoske said. “I have approved awards of $500 for each uniformed screening officer, in recognition of their hard work during yet another busy holiday travel season, maintaining the highest security standards during an extraordinary period.”
Featured image from the Associated Press