TSA senior leaders discuss how to keep screeners at their posts

Transportation Security Administration head David Pekoske held a call Monday with TSA security directors from airports across the country where they discussed impacts of the shutdown, including an increase in call outs and how to ensure officers show up to work, two sources familiar with the call told CNN.

The call included TSA Administrator David Pekoske and top-ranking field officials, according to one of the sources, who listened to the call.

On Friday, CNN reported that hundreds of TSA screeners have called out from their shifts from at least four major airports since the shutdown began in December. One federal official dubbed it a “blue flu,” nodding to the blue shirts worn by TSA officers, while union officials say officers can’t afford to work unpaid.

On the call, Pekoske said security standards would not be lessened and that TSA should be transparent with the public about staffing levels and callouts so that travelers know whether to expect longer security lines, the sources said.

In response to the increase in call outs, TSA is starting to track absences on a national level, according to the source who listened in. Oficials asked the agency’s regional leaders to provide suggestions for how to incentivize employee attendance. Some airports are granting future time off as an incentive, according to one of the sources.

A TSA spokesman said Monday that the agency holds calls with stakeholders on a regular basis and declined to comment specifically on this call.

On Friday, in response to CNN’s original report, TSA spokesman Michael Bilello acknowledged that “callouts began over the Holiday period and have increased,” and that the agency was “closely monitoring the situation.”

Monday’s call came as the House Homeland Security Committee chairman asked TSA whether the partial shutdown, which is now stretching into a third week, has compromised public safety.

Rep. Bennie Thompson, a Mississippi Democrat, asked for specifics about how many officers have called out of work since funding for TSA and other agencies expired in December, and voiced concern that “if wait times and public pressure increase, some TSA managers may try to manage the effects of the shutdown in ways that are detrimental to security.”

“The security of aviation passengers must always be paramount,” Thompson wrote.

Security checkpoint lines swelled over the weekend, with TSA citing a surge of travelers returning home from New Year’s travel.

Sunday was “a historically busy day due to holiday travel” and more than 2.22 million people flew, Bilello said in a statement on Monday. “99.8% of passengers waited less than 30 minutes; 90.1% of passengers less than 15 minutes. In TSA PreCheck lanes, passengers on average waited less than five minutes.”

A TSA union official told CNN some employees have found showing up for work financially hurt them, when factoring in costs such as child care and commuting. Some skipped work to seek temporary jobs to help make ends meet.

Two federal officials who spoke with CNN on Friday said officers were calling out sick in protest of the expectation that they work without paychecks until the Trump administration and Congress make a deal to end the shutdown.

Approximately 51,000 TSA officers are among the 800,000 government employees who are either working unpaid or on furlough and are set to miss their first full paychecks at the end of this week.

“This problem of callouts is really going to explode over the next week or two, when employees miss their first paycheck,” a TSA union official at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport told CNN.

One of the questions from Thompson highlights a possibility that could cripple the nation’s transportation system: “Does TSA have a contingency plan to address mass callouts or resignations among its workforce?”

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