"It’s already started," one official says. "I can only see it getting worse."
The Transportation Security Administration has drawn widespread coverage for the higher-than-usual call out rate of its workforce, which is set to miss its second paycheck due to the partial government shutdown in the coming days. TSA is just one of many agencies dealing with call outs and, in some cases, employees simply leaving their jobs.
TSA call outs eclipsed 10 percent last weekend, a significantly higher rate than the same days in 2018. The agency has maintained that delays are concentrated to a few airports and safety has not been compromised. At a Thursday panel discussion organized by Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee, however, J. David Cox, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents TSA workers, said the situation has gone beyond just employees calling in sick or claiming financial hardships. In Hawaii, he noted, where the cost of living is among the highest in the country, there have been a “large number” of resignations. Even in normal times, TSA maintains a high turnover rate of 20 percent annually and Cox said the agency has eclipsed that rate since the shutdown began 34 days ago.
“They cannot afford to go to work without pay,” Cox said.
National Air Traffic Controllers Association President Paul Rinaldi, in a joint statement with the Air Line Pilots Association and the Association of Flight Attendants, warned about employees leaving the Federal Aviation Administration. Rinaldi warned that nearly one-in-five controllers are already eligible to retire.
“There are no options to keep these professionals at work without a paycheck when they can no longer afford to support their families,” Rinaldi said. “When they elect to retire, the National Airspace System will be crippled.”
Peter Neffenger, former TSA administrator, said at the congressionally organized panel on Thursday that as long as employees show up to work, he has no concerns about safety. He noted that confidence would be shaken if more employees decide they can no longer afford to go to work without pay.
“At some point out there, you just run out of options,” Neffenger said.
The Bureau of Prisons is also dealing with a high level of call outs. The issue has become such a concern that acting Director Hugh Hurwitz called Eric Young, the president of the union for bureau employees, to caution that prison wardens would soon crack down on anyone calling out without proper justification.
“He wanted to let me know he was going to have wardens force the staff to come to work,” Young said, adding that employees not showing up is causing “legitimate concerns.”
He also explained that employees are committed to reporting for duty in order to protect their colleagues and the public, but child care expenses, transportation costs for employees who commute up to two hours each way to report to facilities in remote areas and legitimate illnesses are preventing them from doing so. Young said the problem has been ramping up in recent days.
“I definitely don’t think that it’s purposeful for our staff to not show up for work,” he said. “We care about each other and we want to show up as best we can. But there’s going to be some circumstances outside our control that is going to prevent us from showing up to work.”
Recent Office of Personnel Management guidance instructed agencies to place any employee expected to work without pay during the shutdown who calls out as “absent without leave” and to “apply appropriate consequences.” On Wednesday, however, OPM appeared to reverse course, directing agencies to allow excepted feds to take leave without penalty.
Caitlin Durkovich, former Homeland Security Department Assistant Secretary for Infrastructure Protection, said on Thursday she also feared that employees would start leaving their jobs because of the shutdown. She said most DHS employees accepted their positions because of their commitment to the mission and the stability of the paycheck.
“We have taken away the stability of the paycheck and we have called into question the importance of this homeland security mission,” Durkovich said of the shutdown. “Recruiters are starting to poach the best talent, and the pipeline is in doubt.” She added the department is going to “lose continuity and knowledge.” Durkovich also expressed concern about the next batch of DHS employees, saying the department was forced to skip a popular Scholarship for Service recruiting event that other federal agencies attended.
Some DHS employees are already feeling the pressure. Rachel Weatherly, a senior policy adviser at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, recently told Government Executive she has already begun working with a job search agency and has sent around her resume.
“I’m open to actually resigning and getting a real job,” Weatherly said. “Rather than looking for something temporary, I am looking for something permanent, which is huge because I have a 13-year history with FEMA. I’ve never worked anywhere else.”
Agriculture Department food inspectors are also starting to feel a pinch. David Hosmer, president of the southwest branch of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection Locals, said three inspectors just in the panhandle of Texas have already quit. Even those who are still working, he said, are distracted.
“When inspectors go to work and they are earning a paycheck, they give 110 percent,” Hosmer explained. “When inspectors are not getting a paycheck it kills morale. Why do I need to put forward all the effort if I’m not getting paid for it?”
He added: "There is a possibility an adulterated product will go out."
The issue of call outs is also affecting the Internal Revenue Service, as first reported by The Washington Post. IRS recently recalled 36,000 furloughed employees back to work to prepare for tax filing season. In the agency’s collective bargaining agreement with the National Treasury Employees Union, IRS workers are permitted to take off when they have legitimate hardship in getting to work. The number claiming that hardship is increasing, NTEU President Tony Reardon said.
“The longer employees go without pay, more face financial hardships,” Reardon said. “NTEU does not support employees using it as a form of protest but we do support people using it for true financial hardship. I want to reiterate that even as IRS employees continue to struggle with a lack of pay, they are dedicated to their jobs and returning to work, as directed, if at all possible.”
At the panel discussion on Thursday, Reardon added that federal employees “want to go to work” and no union that he is aware of is promoting or would condone work slowdowns or strikes.
He added, however, that feds “want, sure enough, to be paid to go to work.”
Many have already decided they cannot continue to work for free. Hosmer, the USDA food inspector union official, said one of his “biggest fears,” is an exodus of employees. He said the problem may soon get worse as some areas, such as Denver, are already severely understaffed.
“If we lose inspectors, and that could happen as this shutdown drags on, we’re going to be in a dire situation with food safety,” Hosmer said. Asked what would be the breaking point, he suggested it has already come. “It’s already started,” Hosmer said. “I can only see it getting worse.”