TSA jobs are tough. Now they’re un­paid, too.

Air­port screener An­gel Stephensen on cop­ing with the shut­down

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - An­gel Stephensen is an Army vet­eran and a fed­eral em­ployee of the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Salt Lake City air­port. As told to Post ed­i­tor Sophia Nguyen.

Work­ing for the Trans­porta­tion Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion isn’t glam­orous on the best of days. Trav­el­ers never seem to un­der­stand what “empty” means (nothing at all in your pock­ets, no liq­uid in that Ther­mos) or that I do not want to pat them down (it’s the worst part of my job). Though we’re just en­forc­ing the rules that keep the pub­lic safe, most peo­ple treat us as the jerks who take away their nail clip­pers. Even in a nor­mal year, turnover is high — 80 per­cent at the busiest air­ports.

Now, thanks to the shut­down, we’re do­ing that work with­out com­pen­sa­tion.

My hus­band also is a TSA of­fi­cer, so nei­ther of us is bringing in any money right now. We think we’ll be okay: Our bills are cov­ered for this month, we have some sav­ings, and our land­lord is more un­der­stand­ing than most. But I work with a lot of peo­ple who might not be so lucky — who, on our low salaries, al­ready bud­get tightly and don’t know if they can pay their rent. Fel­low of­fi­cers have told me that

de­spite the gov­ern­ment-is­sued let­ter ex­plain­ing why fed­eral em­ploy­ees may have trouble meet­ing their fi­nan­cial obli­ga­tions, their cred­i­tors won’t budge. I know peo­ple who are driv­ing for Lyft to make some ex­tra cash. Oth­ers want to re­tire or have a job of­fer else­where, but don’t know if they can leave; the hu­man re­sources staffers who would process the pa­per­work are also fur­loughed.

Each morn­ing, I’ve shown up as usual to lead the brief­ing that starts our 3:30 a.m. shift. I thank my co-work­ers for com­ing in — words that have a dif­fer­ent weight these days — and, as their su­per­vi­sor, I have to put on my cheer­ful, mo­ti­va­tional face. (In Salt Lake City, the air qual­ity is so bad this time of year that peo­ple of­ten call in sick, so there hasn’t been a no­tice­able uptick in ab­sences from our an­nual av­er­ages yet. But at other air­ports, ab­sences have dou­bled or tripled, and I can’t blame the work­ers.) I ask ev­ery­one to try to make it to the air­port on time, and I re­mind them that over­time is “avail­able” if they want it, as­sum­ing Con­gress will even­tu­ally au­tho­rize the back pay to cover it. I hate ask­ing them for more. I hate that I can’t an­swer their ques­tions about whether their health-care pre­mi­ums are still be­ing de­ducted and routed to their in­sur­ers, or whether their back pay will get taxed as usual or as a bonus. Any­one I might turn to for that kind of in­for­ma­tion has been deemed “nonessen­tial.”

And, of course, I can’t clear up the big­gest uncer­tainty of all: when things will go back to nor­mal.

On Jan. 4, the pres­i­dent pre­sumed to speak on be­half of all un­paid fed­eral work­ers, who he sug­gested would rather have a bor­der wall than a pay­check: “I think if you ever re­ally looked at those peo­ple, I think they’d say, ‘Mr. Pres­i­dent, keep go­ing, this is far more im­por­tant.’ ” The av­er­age start­ing wage here is $15.50 an hour, and af­ter a decade of work­ing at the TSA, I make $48,000 per year. The pres­i­dent was born with a sil­ver spoon in his mouth. If he thinks he knows how “those peo­ple” think, he is out of his mind. The last big shut­down was hard on us. But at least in 2013 the politi­cians were fight­ing over some­thing real: health care. This time, they’ve come to an im­passe over a wall that would al­legedly stop crime, as Trump ar­gued in his tele­vised ad­dress Tues­day, though first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans and un­doc­u­mented im­mi­grants are less likely to com­mit crimes than na­tive-born ci­ti­zens. (For some­one sup­pos­edly ob­sessed with pub­lic safety, the pres­i­dent seems very blasé about pay­ing the fed­eral em­ploy­ees who work in se­cu­rity.)

Most trav­el­ers I’ve en­coun­tered re­cently have been very nice to the TSA. By my count, we’re get­ting more thank yous in the past two weeks than in the en­tire 10 years I’ve been here. When peo­ple try to ex­press ex­tra ap­pre­ci­a­tion or sym­pa­thy, it’s hard to know what to say. “You’re wel­come”? We don’t have much choice. We’re po­lit­i­cal pawns be­ing held hostage by a tyrant.

When one pas­sen­ger tried to give me a cash tip, I had to refuse. I could lose my job if I ac­cepted, I told her. But thanks for the thought. In­stead, call your rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Con­gress.

Each morn­ing, I show up for our 3:30 a.m. shift and put on my cheer­ful, mo­ti­va­tional face.

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