As the longest federal government shutdown in United States history continues, it is "completely unacceptable" for the 14 Transportation Safety Administration employees at Texarkana Regional Airport to have to work unpaid, their union said Wednesday.
In a statement decrying the shutdown, American Federation of Government Employees Local 917 cited TSA officers' personal hardships and said the situation threatens public safety.
"It is completely unacceptable that the women and men who risk their lives safeguarding our airports are still required to report for work without knowing when they'll be paid again.
"TSA Officers already have the least amount of rights of any federal officer, some of the lowest pay and highest attrition rates in government, and among the lowest morale of any federal agency. Working for weeks on end without being compensated—while already being short-staffed—only makes their situation worse," AFGE National President J. David Cox Sr. said.
Most federal employees have gone without pay for almost four weeks, and TSA officers are wondering how they will pay their rent and other bills, according to the union.
TSA workers typically earn between $26,000 and $35,000 a year, the Associated Press reported Thursday, citing a TSA spokesperson. Screeners this week should have received $500 bonuses and, for some, an extra day's pay, for working over the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
"Every day I'm getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck. Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown," AFGE TSA Council President Hydrick Thomas said. "The loss of officers, while we're already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don't have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires."
The stress the shutdown has caused raises further concerns about safety, said Cherry Hooten, president of the local.
"This is a public safety issue for our members and the American traveling public at large. When the women and men who come to work every day to safeguard our airports are distracted, wondering how they are going to pay their bills because they don't know when they'll get their next check, lives are being put at risk. Not just in the airport, but across the country," Hooten said.
Unusually high numbers of TSA workers have been missing work recently, but the rate has stabilized, according to the Associated Press.
The percentage of TSA officers missing work rose steadily last week but has declined slightly this week. TSA said Thursday that 6.1 percent of its airport screeners missed work Wednesday. That's higher than the 5 percent absentee rate on the same day last year but the second-straight decline after the sick-out rate surged to 7.7 percent Sunday.
The agency said that only 4.6 percent of passengers—or about 80,000 out of 1.79 million people screened—waited 15 minutes or longer in checkpoint lines Wednesday.
TSA could be facing a test by today of its ability to process airport crowds with fewer workers. Last year, nearly 8 million people flew between Friday and Monday of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday. While that is less than the 9 million who flew around the Memorial Day holiday, it is busier than most January weekends.
TSA Administrator David Pekoske announced last weekend that the agency would pay each officer a $500 bonus and that TSA processed pay for screeners who worked Dec. 22, the first day of the shutdown. An agency spokesman said officers should have received the money by Wednesday.
Pekoske said he was able to make the payments "because of unique authorities provided TSA in law." He said he hoped they would ease the financial hardship facing many of the workers.
On Wednesday, AFGE called out elected officials for politicizing federal employees' livelihoods and called for an end to the stalemate in Washington, D.C.
"The federal government should be a model employer for this country, but right now they're failing.
"I just hope our elected leaders stop using federal workers and the valuable services we provide as pawns in their political games. Our work is too important and the risks are too great, and any fallout resulting from it would leave our elected officials entirely to blame," Thomas said.