People wait in lines at Reagan National.

People wait in lines at Reagan National.

TSA employees are already some of the lowest paid government workers. Now, a month into the shutdown and without paychecks, many have stopped showing up to work altogether.

At Baltimore-Washington International Airport earlier this week, a security checkpoint was temporarily closed due to excessive call-outs. And over the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend, when there is typically a spike in the number of travelers at airports, one in 10 TSA employees reportedly took an unscheduled absence.

As the longest shutdown in government history continues, we dive into how TSA agents are coping — and what their absence could mean for the comfort and security of air travel.

Produced By Julie Depenbrock


  • David Cox National President, American Federation of Government Employees


  • 12:00:13

    KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast we check in with reporter Patrick Madden, who is covering a massive protest on Capitol Hill against the partial government shutdown, plus a discussion with Maryland's poet Laureate Grace Cavelieri.

  • 12:00:28

    KOJO NNAMDIBut first, Transportation Security Administration agents are already among the lowest paid government workers and now a month into the shutdown and still without paychecks, nearly 1 in 10 TSA is calling out sick, many citing financial hardships. So what does their absence mean for local airports and how are TSA agents and government workers in our region coping with the longest shut down in history? Earlier today, I spoke with David Cox, National President of the American Federation of Government Employees on how and if he sees a resolution to this mess. I asked him what reasons TSA agents represented by his union are giving when they call out from work.

  • 12:01:09

    DAVID COXA lot of our TSOs -- Transportation Security officers are struggling financially. You realize they have not been paid in one month, even though, they're required to go to work every day to perform vital services for the American public and the average worker makes about $40,000 a year. They're just literally running out of resources to buy the gas, to have food to support their families. It's a real struggle for them right now.

  • 12:01:41

    NNAMDIAre some of the also trying to do jobs on the side so to speak to make ends meet?

  • 12:01:46

    COXSome of them, definitely work side jobs. Many of the Transportation Security officers that work in TSA are only part time officers to begin with, so many of them have always had second jobs. Many of them have to work there for years before they get full time. And they're struggling. And the turnover in those jobs is about 20 percent a year. So each month, TSA loses between 1700-1800 officers that quit, leave, go out the door. And with no new officers coming in you can see how quickly that creates a lot of vacancies and the number of air travelers continues to go up.

  • 12:02:33

    NNAMDIBeyond the TSA workers there's a mass protest against the partial government shutdown happening today here in Washington. And many of the leadership of the American Federation of Government Employees, your union, are attending. What are you hoping to get from this protest?

  • 12:02:47

    COXOur hope is that majority leader, Mitch McConnell, will call for a vote and allow the United States Senate to vote on House bill HR21, which would open up the government. It would fund all of the agencies to a continuing resolution for Homeland Security. Then allow the Congress and the president to continue to debate and to work on border security, which everyone supports. People have different ideas.

  • 12:03:19

    COXBut it is totally unfair that majority leader, Mitch McConnell and the president is holding 800,000 federal employees hostage in this situation requiring them to work without pay or shutting them out of their jobs. And we won't even talk about the hundreds of thousands of contractors that work in service -- in food service, building management in a lot of these government buildings that are out of work also.

  • 12:03:47

    NNAMDITalk about the general mood among your union members. How would you describe it?

  • 12:03:53

    COXI think our members feel very demoralized. They love their jobs. They're still going to work every day without pay at TSA, in our federal prisons, on the border, and all these agencies. They continue to work along with other agencies such as EPA and HUD. They've been locked out of their jobs, told to go home. They have no income and it's just becoming a nightmare of their life. Many of them have to have security clearances. To get those security clearances they have to have good credit. So if they're credit is compromised with late payments or something, then they could lose their jobs.

  • 12:04:39

    NNAMDIYou talked about the plight that these TSA workers face, but what in particular can you tell them? Is it better to come to work or call out sick and look elsewhere for a job?

  • 12:04:50

    COXWe tell all of our members that they should go to work. If they are sick, then they should request and notify their supervisor. And people do get sick. I mean, we're in the height of flu season. We're in the dead of winter. There's many things. And every day in a workforce that large, someone has a heart attack. Someone has a child. There's many things that goes on. If people are sick, then they should call sick, but otherwise we instruct everyone to go to their job.

  • 12:05:19

    COXAnd our people are going to their jobs. They're going to their jobs. Some of them are struggling, because they're -- again, they're running out of money. They're transit subsidy that many of them get working for the government in large cities, where it's our understanding the first of February, they won't even receive the transit subsidy, which like in New York and Washington D.C. area that's how most people travel to airports that work at airports because of parking and various things.

  • 12:05:51

    COXSo all of those things are disappearing. Even if you work at the Dulles Airport here in D.C., you've got a toll road if you're driving. You've got all of these things. So there's a great deal of expense in trying to go to work, when you're not getting paid.

  • 12:06:07

    NNAMDIFor those opting not to come to work, what are their options? When the government reopens, which with a vote scheduled for Thursday could be as early as this week, will those who called out sick be able to return to their jobs in the Transportation Security Administration without any kind of sanction or penalty?

  • 12:06:23

    COXThey should be because if they've called in sick, they were sick. I mean, during a shutdown they can't be charged sick leave or annual leave. There is a lot of things that get involved into a government shutdown. I prefer it as a lock out, because what the president and the majority leader has done is locked people out of their jobs or locked people into their jobs requiring them to come to work and not pay them.

  • 12:06:49

    NNAMDIA few government workers have filed a lawsuit claiming that being required to come to work without being paid or compensated is a form involuntary servitude, which is banned by the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. What do you about that?

  • 12:07:03

    COXNo one should be required to work without being paid. That's the laws of our country. Every other employer in this country is required to pay its employees on payday, except the federal government. That lawsuit is working its way through the court systems. It did not go before the judge. And last week they didn't get the favorable ruling that they wanted over that.

  • 12:07:32

    COXAFGE has also filed a lawsuit, which deals with the fact that there is a law that requires employees to be paid at least minimum wage and be paid for over time. And employees that are now working aren't receiving -- they're receiving zero, so they're not getting minimum wage and they're not being paid for their over time, so there's we believe that that is a lawsuit, we have won it in the past, that we can win.

  • 12:08:01

    COXAgain, however, the court systems are scheduled to shut down on February the 2nd because they're running out of money and we can't even operate the court system in this country.

  • 12:08:10

    NNAMDIBack to Transportation Security officers, if we do end up with an extended shortage of TSA workers, what's the security risk?

  • 12:08:19

    COXI have a great deal of concern for security risk. I think the airline employees are starting to raise security risk concerns as well as -- it's not just the TSA. There's the air traffic controllers that are being required to work without pay. There's other FAA employees that do inspections that are responsible for reviewing all the reports to make sure that air travel is safe in this country.

  • 12:08:46

    COXAnd we've seen before, when 911 happened how crippling that was to this country. We can't afford one breach of the security in the airline industry of this country. And I think the president and the majority leader are certainly rolling the dice over these type things. And it's not just in the airline industry. The food inspectors, they are currently being affected by this lock out. So our food supply is being jeopardized.

  • 12:09:19

    NNAMDIWe saw a security check point closed temporarily at Baltimore Washington International Airport due to excessive call outs.

  • 12:09:26

    COXWe are seeing shortages of personnel throughout the country and I know that there is people that says it's because of call outs. But, again, I would go back to the fact, the normal attrition rate in TSA is 20 percent a year, 1700-1800 employees leave TSA each month.

  • 12:09:52

    NNAMDIDo you know what local airports are doing to prepare for the absences?

  • 12:09:57

    COXI know that TSA has a team of people that they deploy, where there's shortages of officers in certain areas. But, again, because the turnover rate is so high because these workers are so lowly paid and they have less rights of any other federal employees, so those type things are happening. But at the same token these employees are contingent to come to work. They are doing a great job.

  • 12:10:25

    COXI am seeing a lot of people taking them pizzas and taking them food and feeding them understanding that their employer, the president of the United States is choosing not to pay them on payday. So it's kind of sad that government employees that are going to work every day are having to stand in soup lines while -- the fact that the president just refuses to open up the government.

  • 12:10:55

    COXAnd I also say that a third of all these federal workers that are currently locked out of their jobs or not being paid on their jobs are veterans. They have served this country and served it loyally and they deserve better than the president and the majority leader is choosing to give them.

  • 12:11:17

    NNAMDIDavid Cox, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:11:18

    COXThank you so much for having me on. Let's get this government open back up and serve the American people.

  • 12:11:26

    NNAMDIDavid Cox is National President of the American Federation of Government Employees. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll check in with the federal workers protesting the shutdown at the Hart Senate Building at the Capitol today.

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