Number of TSA workers calling off work spikes as shutdown drags on

By Kate Smith, Kris Van Cleave

/ CBS News

TSA leaders worry about "tipping point"

After missing paychecks due to the partial government shutdown on Friday, the number of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers not showing up for work has grown, forcing some passengers to wait in long lines as airports make do with slimmer security staffs. The federal agency has begun to deploy reserve officers to make up for the staffing challenges, but a source familiar with the situation tells CBS News the issue could "begin to compound" and lead to more reductions of services in the coming days.

About 7.6 percent of TSA employees missed work with "unscheduled absences" on Monday, more than double the 3.2 percent of workers who did so on the same day last year, according to Michael Bilello, a spokesperson for TSA. The figure also marks a sharp increase over the number of workers who called off just a week ago on Jan. 7, when 4.6 percent of workers stayed home.

The call-outs, combined with a major snow storm in the mid-Atlantic, have prompted four major airports — Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport, Miami International Airport and Washington-Dulles International Airport — to close screening lanes and checkpoints.

The government shutdown became the longest in U.S. history on Saturday as it entered its fourth week. TSA agents are considered "essential" federal employees, meaning they are required to work without pay until Congress and President Trump reach an agreement to reopen the government.

"It's profoundly unfair and almost disrespectful to put us in the middle of this debate over border security when we have absolutely nothing to do with it," TSA officer Mike Gayzagian told CBS News after TSA employees missed their first paycheck on Friday.

Passengers wait in line at a TSA checkpoint at the Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia, Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Matt Rourke / AP

At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, shutdown-related staffing issues forced the airport to reduce the number of open screening lanes at three main domestic checkpoints on Monday, a source familiar with the matter told CBS News. Passengers traveling through affected checkpoints faced wait times of over an hour to get through security Monday morning, according to the airport's website. TSA's mobile app, MyTSA, reported that some passengers waited over two hours to get through security. International travelers, however, had security lines of only 15 to 30 minutes, per the airport's website.

At Washington-Dulles, the airport closed its West Mezzanine employee and passenger checkpoints, consolidating them into the hub's East Mezzanine. A statement from TSA said much of Washington's call-outs were due to the weekend's storm, but acknowledged call-outs were "slightly higher than a normal snowstorm."

On Friday, David Pekoske, the agency's administrator, tweeted the agency had processed one day of pay for employees who worked Dec. 22, the Saturday immediately following the shutdown, and workers could expect payment by Tuesday. Pekoske also said he approved a $500 holiday bonus for uniformed screening officers for "maintaining the highest of security standards during an extraordinary period." The bonus, which should be paid this week, is equivalent to about four days of work for the average TSA employee.

Nationally, the average annual salary for a TSA security officer is around $37,000, according to Glassdoor. The average hourly rate is $16.

"It's a shame because TSA Officers are already some of the lowest paid officers in the federal workforce, have the least amount of rights of almost any federal employee, and now they're being asked to put their lives on the line without knowing when they'll get their paycheck," J. David Cox Sr., the president of the American Federation of Government Employees, wrote in a statement.

Airport workers around the country have organized to help TSA officers during the shutdown. Although ethics rules prohibit agents from accepting monetary gifts from travelers, group organized meals are fair game, according to a TSA spokesperson. Airport workers in Connecticut's Bradley International Airport and Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Airport Authority organized free meals for TSA officers while Tampa International Airport said it's working with United Way to launch a food bank for workers impacted by the shutdown.

Kris Van Cleave contributed reporting.

First published on January 14, 2019

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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