Air­port se­cu­rity sta≠ strug­gle with worker short­ages

When TSA em­ploy­ees call in sick, facilities close some check­points

The Washington Post Sunday - - FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN - BY CAR­OLYN Y. JOHN­SON AND ASH­LEY HALSEY III ash­[email protected]­post.com car­olyn.john­[email protected]­post.com

Three weeks into the par­tial gov­ern­ment shut­down, air­ports and their work­ers are be­gin­ning to feel some se­ri­ous pain.

At least one ma­jor air­port has had to tem­po­rar­ily shut­ter a con­course be­cause of staffing is­sues re­lated to the shut­down. Oth­ers are open­ing food pantries to sup­port the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion staffers work­ing with­out pay.

Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port closed one of its con­courses for half the day on Satur­day. Air­port of­fi­cials said they plan to do the same on Sun­day and Mon­day out of con­cerns they wouldn’t have enough em­ploy­ees to op­er­ate all the se­cu­rity check­points.

That de­ci­sion was made af­ter an un­usu­ally high num­ber of work­ers called in sick. The num­ber of ill­ness-re­lated ab­sences has dou­bled since the shut­down started, Mi­ami of­fi­cials said.

That jump is prob­a­bly re­lated to a na­tional trend of TSA em­ploy­ees call­ing in sick to protest hav­ing to work with­out pay dur­ing the shut­down.

Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port spokesman Greg Chin said the de­ci­sion to close parts of the air­port was a “pre­cau­tion­ary mea­sure to op­ti­mize staffing” dur­ing peak times when large num­bers of cruise-line pas­sen­gers leave the city. The 10 to 12 af­fected flights will de­part from other ter­mi­nals.

Air­ports across the coun­try are fac­ing staffing short­ages, ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics re­leased by the TSA. On Fri­day, 5.6 per­cent of the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s 51,000 work­ers did not show up for work, com­pared with 3.3 per­cent who took un­sched­uled ab­sences on Jan. 13, 2018.

But the im­pact of those ab­sences on fliers and air­port se­cu­rity has been hotly de­bated. Af­ter sev­eral news out­lets pub­lished sto­ries fea­tur­ing long lines at air­port se­cu­rity, the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity pushed back, call­ing the re­port­ing “fake news.” Of­fi­cials say there have been no ma­jor de­lays, and no im­pact on na­tional se­cu­rity.

On Fri­day, the TSA re­leased data show­ing that vir­tu­ally all of the 1.96 mil­lion pas­sen­gers who flew on Fri­day cleared se­cu­rity within 30 min­utes. About 95 per­cent waited less than 15 min­utes, ac­cord­ing to the data.

“Se­cu­rity stan­dards re­main un­com­pro­mised at our na­tion’s air­ports,” TSA spokesman Jim Gre­gory wrote in an email. “We thank the pub­lic for their con­tin­ued sup­port and acts of kind­ness.”

Air­port of­fi­cials, how­ever, warn that the sit­u­a­tion could get much worse if the shut­down isn’t re­solved soon. Many say they’re draft­ing con­tin­gency plans to deal with a short­age of TSA work­ers, like shut­ting cer­tain se­cu­rity check­points or sup­ply­ing ex­tra staff tem­po­rar­ily to run bins or per­form other non­se­cu­rity func­tions.

“De­spite the shut­down, TSA se­cu­rity of­fi­cers con­tinue to do a great job of ef­fec­tively and ef­fi­ciently screen­ing pas­sen­gers and bags,” said Christo­pher Bid­well, se­nior vice pres­i­dent of se­cu­rity for Air­ports Coun­cil In­ter­na­tional-North Amer­ica, an as­so­ci­a­tion that rep­re­sents the own­ers and op­er­a­tors of air­ports. “But we’re very con­cerned that the sit­u­a­tion of gov­ern­ment work­ers work­ing with­out pay is un­sus­tain­able.”

While the shut­down’s ef­fects on air­port op­er­a­tions do not ap­pear to be wide­spread right now, smaller air­ports could be most vul­ner­a­ble, be­cause even a few ab­sent TSA work­ers could cause long se­cu­rity lines.

Some aid groups are also step­ping up to pro­vide gro­ceries and other ne­ces­si­ties to cash­strapped se­cu­rity screen­ers.

Tampa In­ter­na­tional Air­port is work­ing with local part­ners to launch a food pantry for fed­eral work­ers start­ing Mon­day.

“At our air­port, we’re not see­ing at this point op­er­a­tional im­pacts like they are at other air­ports,” said spokes­woman Janet Scher­berger. The food pantry, she said, would help keep peo­ple mo­ti­vated to show up.

“We want peo­ple to keep com­ing to work,” she said. “We need them to keep the air­port running.”

About 80 TSA work­ers from the Raleigh-Durham In­ter­na­tional Air­port vis­ited a food pantry last week, ac­cord­ing to Kath­leen Lee, di­rec­tor of ser­vices for the White Oak Foun­da­tion, which or­ga­nized the as­sis­tance. Lee said that go­ing for­ward, the or­ga­ni­za­tion had des­ig­nated two days a week for TSA work­ers to pick up food “as long as it’s pro­duc­tive and nec­es­sary.”

Other air­ports are look­ing at ways to sup­port em­ploy­ees, like bringing in util­ity com­pa­nies to give work­ers more flex­i­bil­ity on pay­ing their bills or a credit union that could help pro­vide loans.

That’s the goal in Tampa, where the food pantry will also of­fer bus passes to help em­ploy­ees get to work dur­ing the shut­down.

“This is re­ally a re­sponse to the need of peo­ple who we work along­side every­day and aren’t be­ing paid, and so it’s about do­ing the right thing for peo­ple who are part of the air­port fam­ily,” Scher­berger said.

TSA Ad­min­is­tra­tor David P. Pekoske also an­nounced Fri­day that work­ers who manned check­points on Dec. 22 would be paid for their work that day and would re­ceive a bonus for work­ing through the busy hol­i­day sea­son.

“While I re­al­ize this is not what you are owed for your hard work dur­ing pay pe­riod 26 and what you de­serve, I hope these ac­tions al­le­vi­ate some of the fi­nan­cial hard­ship many of you are fac­ing,” Pekoske tweeted.

PHO­TOS BY CRISTOBAL HERRERA/EPA-EFE/SHUTTERSTOCK

A Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cer closes the check­point for Mi­ami In­ter­na­tional Air­port’s Ter­mi­nal G over the week­end.

TSA of­fi­cers con­tinue to work with­out pay be­cause of the gov­ern­ment shut­down, and some com­mu­ni­ties are try­ing to as­sist.

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