Hundreds of TSA screeners call out sick at major airports amid government shutdown

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Hundreds of Transportation Security Administration officers, who are required to work without paychecks through the partial government shutdown, have called out from work this week from at least four major airports. Full credit: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg/Getty Images

UNITED STATES —  Hundreds of TSA officers have called in sick from work this week from at least four major airports.

The mass call outs could inevitably mean air travel is less secure, especially as the partial government shutdown enters its second week with no clear end in sight.

At New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport, as many as 170 TSA employees have called off sick each day this week, according to CNN.

Similarly, call-outs increased by 200-300% at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.  Reportedly, during an average shift, typically only 25 to 30 TSA employees call out at DFW.

North Carolina airports, including Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham, have experienced 10% higher TSA call outs, according to Mac Johnson, the local union president. “That number will get worse as this drags on.”

The call outs are “creating a vulnerability” and screeners are “doing more with less,” Johnson said.

Two of the sources, who are federal officials, described the sick outs as protests of the paycheck delay. One called it the “blue flu,” a reference to the blue shirts worn by transportation security officers who screen passengers and baggage at airport security checkpoints.

Union officials told CNN that the absences are not part of an organized action, however they believe the number of people calling out will likely increase.

“This problem of call outs is really going to explode over the next week or two when employees miss their first paycheck,” a union official at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport told CNN. “TSA officers are telling the union they will find another way to make money. That means calling out to work other jobs.”

CNN’s Rene Marsh and Greg Wallace spoke with two senior agency officials and three TSA employee union officials about the sick-outs.

There are 51,739 members of the Transportation Security Administration‘s airport security screening workforce, according to TSA spokesman Michael Bilello.

Thursday, a day before CNN’s report on TSA workers calling in sick, Bilello said workers will be paid when funds are appropriated.

“Basically what we’ve learned is just to stay focused on the mission, take it one day at a time, and I can’t say enough about the professionalism and dedication of the TSA workforce,” Bilello said Thursday.

How TSA may address the problem

The number of traveling passengers has grown by about 4% each of the last few years, Pekoske said in September. He said the growth “without commensurate increases in the size of our Transportation Security Officer workforce … has impacted both training and morale.”

And TSA is bracing for more call outs next week, according to veteran field officials. That means TSA officials at airports around the country — cognizant that long security lines frustrate passengers — could have tough decisions to make, including whether to let passengers board flights with less scrutiny.

The big question is “How are they filling the void?” said one of the veteran TSA officials, voicing concern about the impact on security. “If you’re not seeing long wait times at airports, there’s something on the security side they’re not doing.”

Those officials say the potential options airports may use include fewer random pat down security checks on passengers, or giving passengers who have not been vetted for the PreCheck program an expedited screening. Airports struggling to staff checkpoints may also start reducing the number of lanes open to passengers, which will likely mean longer lines and waiting times.

Airports struggling with manpower issues could also opt to loosen standards for checked baggage based on a theory that people would not bring a bomb onto their own flights because the explosion would kill them, too. Known as positive passenger bag match, it presumes that if a passenger checks in and boards the flight, their checked luggage is safe, but some security experts are doubtful it is effective.

There are no indications that any of these measures have been necessary or implemented.

Continuing coverage, here.

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