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Longest government shutdown in history causes record number of TSA workers to stay home

January 23rd, 2019 | ThinkProgress Staff

As the longest government shutdown in U.S. history ticks on, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is slowly starting to crumble.

The absence rate for TSA employees this weekend increased to a record-breaking eight percent, compared to 7.5 percent last week and just three percent this time last year, according to the Washington Post. The absences particularly impacted large hubs in Chicago, New York, Atlanta and Miami. Baltimore Washington International Airport also suffered some sever staff shortages this weekend. On Sunday, the absences topped ten percent, as many TSA workers were unable to afford to continue working without pay.

In order to keep lines moving at airports, TSA has dipped into its National Deployment Force (NDF) pool, which is normally used to help out with major events such as the Superbowl.

TSA is also doing its utmost to ensure that the public does not know the true extent of how the shutdown is affecting the agency’s ability to perform its job. In an email sent Friday obtained by CNN, the agency’s deputy assistant administrator for public affairs Jim Gregory laid out a series of talking points on how to handle inquiries about the scale of the shutdown.

“Do not offer specific call out data at your airport,” the email reads. “You can say you have experienced higher numbers of call outs but in partnership with the airport and airlines you are able to manage people and resources to ensure effective security is always maintained.”

While TSA offers national data, it does not offer details for specific airports owing to “security concerns.” This means that there could be significant variation at airports that push some higher than the eight percent absence rate recorded nationwide.

The absences have, however, trickled down to travelers, who have been forced to wait in line for much longer than normal to get through security. TSA has consistently maintained that it is screening the vast majority of passengers in 30 minutes or less, but the ebbs and flows of airports during the shutdown has meant that some have been in scenarios where they’ve been severely understaffed.

Last week, for instance, multiple security lanes at Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson International Airport were closed; wait times to pass through security lasted more than an hour and multiple flights were canceled. TSA is also expecting an influx of visitors into Atlanta for the Superbowl on February 3rd.

The continued lack of funding for TSA has also meant some workers have decided to simply quit outright, according to Hydrick Thomas, head of the American Federation of Government Employees’ TSA Council.

“Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown,” he said in a statement. “The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don’t have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires.”

It’s not just TSA employees that have been struggling as the government shutdown enters its 30th day.

FBI field offices in Newark, Dallas, New Jersey and Washington are also establishing, or plan to establish, food banks for agents, who are also considered essential employees and must work through the shutdown. Because of security considerations FBI agents are usually prohibited from taking a second job, but according to CNN there has been a sharp surge in the number of agents and workers looking for additional employment.

Meanwhile, employees at federal prisons are also logging double shifts, and even in some cases using medical or maintenance employees to work as guards to help supplement low staffing numbers. According to the New York Times this led some inmates at New York’s Metropolitan Correction Center to go on hunger strike last week, as staffing shortages had forced the jail to cancel family visits for a second week.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on January 21, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Luke Barnes is a reporter at ThinkProgress. He previously worked at MailOnline in the U.K., where he was sent to cover Belfast, Northern Ireland and Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 2015 from Columbia University with a degree in Political Science. He has also interned at Talking Points Memo, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and Narratively.

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