The shutdown is pushing the Transportation Security Administration to the brink

Long lines, tanking morale, and the potential for serious security lapses.

TSA agents at Denver International Airport continue to work without pay after 24 days of the partial government shutdown. (CREDIT: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
TSA agents at Denver International Airport continue to work without pay after 24 days of the partial government shutdown. (CREDIT: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

The longest government shutdown in U.S. history is putting a severe strain on the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), with impacts ranging from hour-plus lines at airport screening checkpoints to food banks being set up for federal employees to an increased number of agents missing work.

According to Michael Bilello, a TSA spokesperson, the percentage of the administration’s employees missing work with “unscheduled absences” has increased significantly in the last week, from 4.6 percent to 7.6 percent. TSA agents are considered essential federal employees, meaning they are required to work regardless of whether the government is open — and able to pay them — or not.

The staffing shortages have created sprawling security checkpoint lines at airports throughout the country. Lines at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport were more than an hour long on Monday, while Miami International Airport, Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport, and Washington Dulles International Airport were all forced to close checkpoints due to staff shortages, creating serious delays.

TSA officials have promised belated compensation for those workers who do show up during the shutdown. On Friday, David Pekoske, the TSA administrator, tweeted that in addition to their back pay, all uniformed screening officers will receive a $500 bonus. Some TSA employees, however, feel that the continued shutdown may soon push them to breaking point.


“Everybody now is probably at the highest point of anxiety that they’ve been since this whole thing started. The reality is setting in that we’re not going to get paid,” TSA officer Mike Gayzagian told CBS News. “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.”

Further exacerbating fears about airport security, on Monday it was also reported that earlier in January, a passenger managed to accidentally bring a gun through airport security in Atlanta and onto a Tokyo-bound Delta flight.

TSA insisted that the security breach was due to “standard procedures” being ignored, and not due to staffing shortages. However, the mishap does shine an uncomfortable spotlight on the type of incident that could occur if TSA checkpoints remain understaffed, and agents remain unpaid and demoralized.

Evidence of the severe financial strain that the shutdown is placing on TSA employees is also mounting. Tampa International Airport, for instance, established a food bank to help TSA employees, as well as those at Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), keep food on the table. Other airports followed suit Monday.

The Department of Homeland Security, which houses TSA, sent out a letter to all employees to show to any potential creditors, explaining that “because these employees will not receive pay during the lapse in appropriations, some… may have difficulty in timely meeting their financial obligations.”


Democratic lawmakers have been doing their best to draw attention to the plight of TSA agents. Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) labeled the state of the airports a “travesty” while Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) tweeted that it was hard for her to look into the eyes of TSA workers who “deserved better.” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) also highlighted TSA employees struggles on Instagram, where she urged travelers to sympathize with their situation and “be kind” in spite of the waits.

As the government shutdown is about to enter its 25th day, a series of polls released over the weekend show that Americans primarily blame Trump and Republicans for the fiasco. Nonetheless, there appears to be no end in sight, with Trump continuing to insist that, actually, it’s all the Democrats fault and that he will not budge until he gets his big, beautiful wall.