The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Working for the TSA is tough enough. Now I’m not even getting paid for it.

My co-workers and I have shown up for work every day during the shutdown. We don’t have much of a choice.

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 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, 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.

Last Friday, the president presumed to speak on behalf of all the unpaid federal workers: “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 to stop crime, going by Trump’s televised address last night, though both first-generation Americans and undocumented immigrants are less likely to commit crimes than native-born citizens. (For someone supposedly obsessed with public safety, he 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 back. “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 congressperson.

As told to Post editor Sophia Nguyen.