The government shutdown, now in its 32nd day and being the longest ever in U.S. history, has caused massive media coverage on Transportation Security Agency (TSA) employees and their fate due to the shutdown. This is precisely because the TSA could bring the country to a virtual standstill, and thus has more power than most to end the shutdown by pressure.
Over this holiday weekend, sick call-ins for TSA employees not getting paid during the shutdown hit 10 percent, suggesting that the problem could spiral out of hand, despite the Agency’s insistence to the contrary.
There’s plenty of reason for the public sympathy with the TSA, despite the grueling process they put travelers through at the airport. Still, you won’t find this same level of human interest stories about judges, lawyers or other federal workers affected by shutdown.
More than 51,000 TSA staffers are involved in the airport screening process which is essential for people to travel across the United States. On average, the agents screen 2 million passengers per day at nearly 440 airports as travelers follow their instructions as if they are in the military because they feel safer doing so.
But now media reports are increasingly emerging about TSA workers calling in sick. According to a recent TSA press release, figures show that the agency has now experienced a national rate of 8 percent of unscheduled absences compared to a 3 percent rate one year ago at the same time.
Over the weekend, TSA closed a checkpoint at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport over a lack of staffing. The event occurred about a week after Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport closed one of its checkpoints. Airports in Houston and Miami also shut down terminal checkpoints over the weekend.
Even more alarming, the TSA was forced to call up National Deployment Officers (NDO) to operate checkpoints because of the increasing absence of screeners over the weekend.
NDO’s have been sent to several major airports, including at Newark Liberty International airport, LaGuardia Airport and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
But where growing numbers of TSA workers are calling in sick, plenty of others are happy to take their place - despite the government shutdown - with more than 300 applicants gunning for positions just over the weekend at a Minnesota job fair.
In the meantime, the public is feeling highly sympathetic toward the TSA employees’ plight. Passengers have reportedly been dropping off gift cards, bringing in food and making various offers of assistance.
Members of the band, KISS are offering TSA employees a free meal at their Rock and Brews. TSA employees can get a free pulled pork sandwich or strawberry fields salad.
And then there is also American Airlines, whose credit union is offering 1-percent interest loans of $1,200 or the amount of a single net paycheck to airport security workers.
Last week, President Trump signed a new bill into law guaranteeing back pay for those federal employees who are taking a hit. But it’s not enough to make him look like the good guy in a historically long government shutdown over a massive border wall.
Even more so when the State of California is making a point to bring more attention to it by encouraging TSA workers to file for unemployment - even though that goes against White House guidance.
So not only is the TSA the one agency that could force an end to the shutdown, but it is also the key agency in the political popularity contest right now, and a lot is at stake over reputation.