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Facing Yet Another Shutdown, TSA Union President Warns Of Employee Burnout, Compromised Security

CREDIT: DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY
CREDIT: DEPARTMENT OF HOMELAND SECURITY

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is due to “shut down” at midnight on Friday if Congress doesn’t find a way to pass a bill to fund the agency. But for the vast majority of the 243,000 agency workers deemed essential on the job, a “shutdown” would mean that they would have to continue to go back to work without paychecks.

At least 50,000 of the more than 55,600 Transportation Security Administration (TSA) workforce, like airport passenger and baggage screener personnel, would be required to work without pay. Some TSA personnel are afraid that they might face the same financial and morale issues that they ran into during the October 2013 shutdown in which many federal employees went to work without pay, only to eventually receive their paychecks at a later date.

“What really made us angry was last time we had a shutdown — our employees were called back from leave. They were told to come back to work without being paid,” Bob Bartz, the TSA Local 1048 president told ThinkProgress on Monday. He has worked at the agency for 11 years and helps guard the nation’s airports by screening passengers and baggage. “Senior management was sent home on furlough and got free vacation time out of it. Front line employees are essential personnel. Federal security directors are non-essential so they spend time at home. When it’s said and done, they get paid the same as we [do].”

The 2013 shutdown contingency plan stated that both exempt and non-exempt DHS employees can be recalled to work without pay under situations that require help with emergency situations, unplanned or unexpected projects or activities that qualify as an exempt function, a determination that existing exempt functions require additional personnel, or a need to replace an exempt employee who is unable to work. During that shutdown, “nearly 200,000 of DHS’s 231,000-plus civilian and military employees were likely exempted from emergency furloughs. That means more than 85 percent of DHS workers continued doing their jobs, according to a Congressional Research Service report on DHS’s funding lapse,” the National Journal reported.

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Recalling the 2013 shutdown, Bartz said that he relied on personal savings to get by. “We were actually faced with having to do without paychecks, but it was coming down to the wire wondering whether we would have to sign up for unemployment insurance,” Bartz said. “We didn’t know if we would have gas to go to work.”

Bartz said that the average age of his 140-member union is about 35. He’s concerned for younger members just starting families and at risk of late payments. But he’s also worried about keeping a roof over his head. “We had wildfires come through our home and now we have another mortgage on the house,” he said. “We also have bank loans.”

He sighed, “If we miss one paycheck, it’s time to decide which bill not to pay. The first ones would be credit cards and unsecured loans. We have to maintain the mortgage and electricity any way we can.”

Americans won’t see a noticeable difference in the country’s 19,453 airports. Bartz’s local union covers the Texas airports in Austin, Waco, Killeen, and Bryan College-Station where passengers pass through on a collective average of 854 aircraft operations a day. Some workers would have to take on longer hours to cover shifts for disgruntled agents choosing not to go to work. “When it comes down to it, there’s people who’s going to decide not to come to work,” Bartz said. In anticipation of some TSA employees not showing up to work, he said, “Most of us are committed to our jobs. When we’re missing part of the workforce it makes it difficult. … We have strict discipline [for absences] so it never looks good for missing work, so there’s a lot of pressure when they do have attendance issues.”

A TSA handbook states that agents’ time could be charged as absence without leave (AWOL) when they fail to report for duty without approval or if they have an unauthorized absence from the workplace during the workday. The handbook also specifies that agents must receive a 30-minute unpaid meal break for employees who work at least eight hours, and a 15-minute rest break for every four hours of scheduled duty.

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“We’re stretched to the max as it is,” Bartz said. “If you’re short-staffed, it becomes difficult to run a smooth security operation and required training. We can’t give people rest and lunch breaks. It’s critical to keep people fit for duty. You have to have focus. In addition to fatigue, there’s the whole concept of undivided attention. When you’re furious that you’re at work without being paid while management is sitting at home collecting free vacation paycheck, it gets very distracting from your primary function.”

For agents tasked with intercepting dangerous items at checkpoints, overworking them could have devastating mental effects on their screening process. At least three studies found that mental fatigue could slow down reaction time, lead to decreased performance efficiency, and that boredom and fatigue were the most common problems among airline screeners.

But White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest wants Congressional members to feel the pressure. Earnest hoped that Congressional members who go “through security just like other Americans, and I hope that they’re going to take a minute and look in the eye of TSA officers who are representing their country. … And I hope that they will think about them as they come back to Washington, and consider what they’re going to do to fund the Department of Homeland Security.”

“We have no job security,” Bartz said. “Just from the standpoint of a public servant, I’ve got to wonder how many people have gone through in this agency, who are now disgruntled employees, who had sensitive access. Talk about a waste of federal spending.”

Sending people back home after they’ve been trained also presents an issue for Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Commissioner Kerlikowske who spoke at a press conference Monday, “The human face is that we have been actively hiring Customs and Border Protection officers and Border Patrol agents, literally almost 500 that are in our training academy right now. We will give them a plane ticket home and send back home from those academies in Georgia and Artesia, New Mexico, and we will not be paying for them.”

“When this happened before, some did not return,” Kerlikowske said. “We spent a lot of money in training and hiring and making sure that they were properly screened, and when they went back home, people said you are pretty attractive person for a job there. We cannot continue on this path.”

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At issue is a Congressional battle over a DHS budget bill that includes amendments that roll back President Obama’s executive actions to shield as many as five million undocumented immigrants from deportation. In what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture Monday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) introduced a stand-alone bill that would block those executive actions, giving a way for the Senate to pass a “clean” funding bill devoid of measures that Senate Democrats have already stated they wouldn’t support.

Johnson appeared on all five Sunday talk shows to discuss the need for Congress to pass a full-year appropriations bill. He is slated to hold another conference with former Homeland Security Secretaries Governor Tom Ridge and Judge Michael Chertoff on Wednesday.

DHS agencies affected by a potential shutdown include 16 agencies and offices like the TSA, Coast Guard, Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Secret Service.

A recent poll found that 53 percent of Americans would blame the Republican party if Congress doesn’t pass a DHS budget bill. Bartz viewed it different, “I’m entirely dissatisfied with both parties. My feeling is that if anybody is a position of being an incumbent, they should be voted out of office.”

“We’ve got to find a solution without having to hold federal workers hostage.” Bartz added, “I think we’re missing the mark when in the process we’re hurting our own people.”

Update:

A TSA spokesman tweeted Wednesday that “federal security directors were required (and did) work during the shutdown.” According to a TSA website, federal security directors are ranking TSA authorities “responsible for the leadership and coordination of TSA security activities” and other day-to-day operational direction for federal security at airports. TSA indicated in a blog post that 90 percent of its workforce would still continue to work without pay, while six percent would be furloughed.