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TSA acknowledges financial stress of shutdown is forcing growing number of officers to stay home

Major airports are dealing with disruption.

TSA workers pick up food and other items at the pop-up pantry in the police training facility at Tampa International Airport. The food pantry was organized by the airport and came together with Feeding Tampa Bay and United Way Suncoast to provide resources for government employees who are required to work but aren't getting paid during the government shutdown. (Eve Edelheit for The Washington Post)

Faced with growing numbers of call-outs by its workers — and images of some of them lining up for food donations — leaders of the Transportation Security Administration acknowledged Wednesday that “many employees are reporting that they are not able to report to work due to financial limitations.”

Significant numbers of TSA agents have not been coming to work, either because of financial hardship or to underscore their opposition to being forced to work without pay.

And the agency said the call-outs are rising.

Hundreds of TSA agents who are not getting paid during the government shutdown are calling out of work at major airports across the country. (Video: Reuters)

TSA officials would not provide specific employee totals, citing security concerns. But “the number of people calling out because of financial concerns is increasing,” said Michael Bilello, TSA’s assistant administrator for public affairs.

“We’re certainly not in denial that as we go further and further away from having a missed paycheck and going into unknowns, it’s going to start to affect people. And people will have to make a decision: ‘Can I afford to go to work today?’ ” Bilello added. “People aren’t just pretending to be sick. … What we’re hearing from the workforce is the increasing reason they’re calling out is, financially, they can no longer make it to work.”

Shutdown is stressing the nation’s air safety system

Numbers from the agency, covering Tuesday and Wednesday, show 6.1 percent of employees did not come to work on each of those days. That’s nearly 1 out of every 16 workers.

And for the thousands of those continuing to work, anxiety is building.

“My heart literally hurts, not just because I’m struggling at home, but because everyone that I work with out there is struggling with me,” said TSA officer Rosa Valdovinos-Guzman, her voice cracking at a union rally at Los Angeles International Airport on Wednesday. She said her fellow officers are “out there working, they’re putting their lives on the line. We took that oath when we got hired here, and we’re not even getting what we deserve.”

TSA said the call-outs have forced three major airports — Atlanta, Houston and Miami — to operate under contingency plans meant to address various disruptions. In this case, the disruption is the partial shutdown over President Trump’s push for billions of dollars to build a border wall.

Miami temporarily shuttered a concourse and checkpoint over the weekend, and reopened the facility Monday. Houston began operating with a major checkpoint closed Sunday, and that remained the case Thursday, airport officials said.

Staffing issues in Atlanta caused painful delays Monday, when the TSA said it took nearly 90 minutes for some to make it through security. The TSA brought in extra workers from its National Deployment Force in an attempt to ease backups, and top waits Tuesday dropped to 23 minutes, according to TSA figures. But by Wednesday, Atlanta’s maximum checkpoint times were up to 39 minutes, the worst on a TSA list of 21 airports. The airport this week warned passengers in a tweet: “#ATL is experiencing longer than usual wait times during peak travel. Please plan ahead and give yourself 3 hours to clear security.”

TSA Administrator David P. Pekoske last week used existing TSA money to pay workers who reported on Dec. 22, the day the shutdown began, and to provide them with a $500 bonus for their work over the busy Christmas holiday from “unlapsed funds in specific TSA accounts.” His effort to provide cash to his staff was intended to tide them over as they worked without pay, though officials acknowledged it is not nearly what they are owed.

Still, “they should all have [the money] by Friday via the direct deposit system,” TSA spokesman Jim Gregory said.

As the political impasse continues, the Trump administration has also recalled thousands of furloughed safety workers at the Federal Aviation Administration. But outside experts said the U.S. aviation safety system remains under significant stress, and that risks of errors are increasing as the shutdown persists.

The FAA expects to have more than 2,200 of its inspectors in place by the end of this week. The recalled inspectors include those responsible for flight standard field inspections, evaluations and audits, certification activities, on-call accident investigations and commercial space launch oversight.

The agency said there had been no drop off in attendance by federal air traffic controllers, who have been working without pay since last Friday, when they received their last paycheck by direct deposit.

Members of Congress have been pressing the administration about the risks caused by the shutdown, but the deadlock remains.

Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter Wednesday to acting FAA administrator Daniel K. Elwell pointing to the “financial insecurity” facing thousands of air traffic controllers going without pay. That, “coupled with the increased hours some controllers are reportedly working to cover for existing staffing shortfalls, may introduce unnecessary stress to this high-risk job, potentially increasing the likelihood of mistakes,” he wrote.

Air traffic controllers pay stub: $0.00

Markey asked whether the FAA’s decision to recall thousands of safety inspectors will allow the workforce to conduct “all necessary” inspections, what steps the FAA is taking to retain controllers — more than 1,800 of whom are eligible to retire — and what steps are being taken to replace potential retirees.

“The American people need to know that their air travel remains safe,” Markey wrote.