Transportation Security Administration officers are still calling in sick at higher than usual rates as they’re being asked to work without pay during the partial government shutdown.
TSA spokesperson Michael Bilello said on Twitter Monday that “wait times may be affected” at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, one of the country’s busiest. Some officers are likely calling in sick out of protest, while others may be taking time off since they’re having trouble paying for childcare or need to do other work to make ends meet, CNN recently reported. Union officials have emphasized there’s no coordinated plan for workers to call in sick.
According to the CNN report, sick calls at DFW were up 200% to 300%, but the agency says the situation isn’t that bad. In a separate tweet, Bilello said about 5.5% of DFW TSA workers called in sick Monday, compared to 3.5% on “a normal day.” That’s roughly a 70% increase.
Airport media relations manager Cynthia Vega said Monday that operations haven’t been affected by the sick calls.
“Basically, it’s been the same as what we have experienced in past holiday seasons,” she says. “Normal operations, as far as we’re concerned.”
Rudy Garcia, president of the American Federation of Government Employees chapter that represents that airport’s TSA workers, declined to comment on the numbers of employees calling in sick, citing security concerns, but he confirmed the shutdown is becoming a financial burden for union members.
“These folks have to have their bills paid–they have mortgages, they have cars,” he says. “If somebody told you that you’re going to be out of work for two to three months with no income, how’s that going to affect you?”
While some federal employees at agencies affected by the shutdown are on furlough and told to stay home, TSA officers and other workers deemed essential have been told to report to work, though they likely won’t be paid until Congress and President Trump can agree to a spending bill. Historically, federal employees have received back pay after government shutdowns have been resolved.
In general, the agency has said the effect of the increased sick calls isn’t significant: Of about 2.22 million passengers screened Sunday, 99.8% waited less than half an hour, and 90.1% waited less than 15 minutes, Bilello said in a text message Monday. Waits for Precheck passengers averaged less than five minutes, he said.
“We are grateful to the more than 51,000 agents across the country who remain focused on the mission and are respectful to the traveling public as they continue the important work necessary to secure the nation’s transportation systems,” he said.
Airports downplay impact
Officials at some busy airports have also said callouts haven’t significantly affected passengers. Spokespeople for Denver International Airport, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, Las Vegas’s McCarran International Airport, Chicago’s Midway and O’Hare International airports, and Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport (which is often reported to serve the most passengers of any airport in the world), all said their facilities weren’t significantly impacted.
“We had a few increases [in sick calls], but operations are still moving pretty well here,” says Elise Durham, the Atlanta airport’s director of communications. “We are just grateful here at ATL that everything’s still running smoothly.”
Meanwhile, some screeners at some airports, like San Francisco International Airport, say they are not affected by the shutdown because they are private contracted employees.
It’s unclear so far how the TSA will resolve the issue, which, if it continues, could require reducing security measures or subjecting flying passengers to longer airport lines. President Trump warned Friday the shutdown could last months or even years if Congress won’t approve funding for a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. He’s planning to give a speech on the subject tonight.
Why not just pay the workers? A century-old law called the Antideficiency Act bans federal agencies from incurring financial obligations when they haven’t received appropriations from Congress. Since 1980, the Justice Department has interpreted the law to require a shutdown of nonessential operations when Congress fails to pass spending bills. It’s a situation essentially unique to the United States: Many other countries simply extend current budgets while legislatures hammer out changes to spending plans.