'We've just opened the floodgates,' one senior executive says.
Hundreds of frontline screeners at the Transportation Security Administration are opting to skip work over fear of contracting the novel coronavirus, sparking concerns among some agency leaders of staffing shortfalls.
The employees are calling out or heading home after TSA Administrator David Pekoske said at a virtual town hall that transportation security officers could use paid “weather and safety leave” if they felt uncomfortable coming to work. That announcement followed several TSA officers around the country contracting the virus and dozens more being forced into quarantine.
Top regional officials are now sounding the alarm that hundreds of employees are staying home, and with little incentive for screeners to continue working when they can simply request leave with no questions asked, the officials expect the problem to only get worse. And while airport traffic has greatly diminished as a result of the pandemic, officials say there is still a small surge of travel occurring during the spring break period.
There is “absolutely nothing” to stop the situation from growing to thousands of officers declining to come to work, one senior executive said. As more and more employees see their colleagues taking unlimited safety leave without missing a paycheck, the executive speculated those employees would stop seeing any point in coming to work. “Why am I coming to work?” the official anticipated employees would ask themselves.
TSA said in a statement the safety leave would be available in 14-day increments for employees to ensure "they have time to assess their health status and coordinate personal and family matters."
"This applies to employees, regardless of whether or not they are symptomatic for COVID-19," the agency said. "This is part of TSA’s commitment to the well-being of its workforce during this extraordinary time."
A second senior executive said the number employees coming to that conclusion has already jumped.
“Those numbers are pretty aggressively growing,” the executive said. “We’ve just opened the floodgates for people to exploit it.”
The officials said the agency has directed them to not ask any questions of any employee who requests leave.
“If they show up and say ‘I'm scared to go to work’, we are not allowed to challenge them,” one senior executive said. “We are not allowed to ask why. They can just go home.”
Jim Gregory, a TSA spokesman, countered that supervisors "should have meaningful conversations with employees."
Pekoske’s latest informal guidance follows an official memorandum TSA put out last week that said the agency would grant safety leave only for those employees ordered to quarantine. Under that policy, those workers would be required to provide written proof of such an order. It directed managers to approve safety leave for other employees only for 24 hours to enable employees to make arrangements to care for loved ones.
One executive had no problem with that guidance, noting some pregnant employees had taken leave as they are at a higher risk. Another executive said there was no intention to put anyone at risk and they had sent home all employees with any history of medical conditions. Instead of turning that into “if you’re not comfortable, if you feel you are at risk, don’t come in,” one supervisor suggested TSA supply officers with the N95 masks the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has suggested is most effective in preventing the spread of the virus. TSA employees have implored the agency to provide the masks, but it has instead only made standard surgical masks available on an optional basis. A spokesman for the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA screeners, said the official guidance employees have received dictated they must have an excuse above simply feeling uncomfortable to receive safety leave. The supervisors, however, said they have received informal guidance from the administrator superseding that policy.
The same executive also suggested the agency require screeners to change gloves for each passenger, noting during pat downs the officers touch the parts of arms that passengers have been instructed to cough and sneeze into. Gregory, the TSA spokesman, said the agency has instructed employees to conduct such glove changes. AFGE, however, said it has requested the change in policy and has been told "it is not feasible."
The executives said the growing number of employees opting out of work is starting to adversely impact the mission. The decision was made by the administrator, they said, without input from those in the field. They brought concerns up the chain to no avail.
“We were told the decision was made and not to challenge it,” the second senior executive said.
TSA, for its part, said it will consult with local leadership to "adjust screening operations as needed to ensure that security is not compromised.”
The executives, however, expect the impact of employees staying home will only grow more dire.
“Three weeks from now it wouldn't surprise me if most of these operations can no longer function,” one said.
This story was updated with comment from TSA and AFGE.
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