TSA agents wear masks as they screen passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on April 15.

TSA agents wear masks as they screen passengers at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on April 15. Elaine Thompson / AP

As TSA's Screeners Work Significantly Reduced Schedules, Agency's N95 Stockpile Goes Unused

Agency is planning for reduced demand on its workforce for 18 months into the future.

As the Transportation Security Administration is responding to a dramatic downturn in air travel due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, most of its employees are working sharply abbreviated schedules that leave them home on paid leave for most of their normal work weeks. 

The employees on reduced hours at their normal workstations are in addition to the nearly 8,000 TSA screeners who are staying home every day on paid safety leave due to concerns about their risk to severe complications from COVID-19 or potential exposure to it. TSA is projecting its staffing requirements will be affected "for some time," according to internal documents obtained by Government Executive, and is looking for ways to redeploy its underutilized employees up to 18 months in the future. TSA has limited the number of officers on duty by implementing staffing caps at airports due to passenger volume decreases. 

At some facilities, employees are working as few as two days every other week, according to several TSA executives who spoke to Government Executive on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters, while at some they are working two days per week. Each airport is taking its own approach, the officials said, noting some are allowing employees to rotate working one week and then staying home for one or two weeks. 

“You’ve got TSA sitting around doing nothing,” one executive said. “You can train them but there’s only so much training you can do.” 

Government Executive previously reported that TSA screeners were staying home en masse over fear of contracting the coronavirus after TSA Administrator David Pekoske told regional leaders to approve "weather and safety leave" for anyone who felt uncomfortable coming to work due to an elevated risk of severe illness from exposure to the virus. That number ballooned to more than 7,000 last week and remains at more than 6,500, which is in addition to the 1,200 employees ordered home to quarantine after coming into contact with individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. 

TSA is making additional changes to its workforce in an attempt to lower costs as its workload has plummeted. The agency is seeking to put all its non-working employees on a regular, nine-to-five schedule to avoid giving night or weekend differential pay for those who remain at home. TSA last week also instructed all regional executives to reduce all part-time screeners—who typically work 28-32 hours per week—down to 20-hour schedules, according to multiple officials and internal emails. Following a congressional hearing in which lawmakers castigated TSA for revoking some health care benefits for its part-time workforce, however, the agency quickly paused the change. 

“Please do not take any actions to reduce [part-time] hours at this point—we're taking a look at this and will let you know how to proceed,” Gary Renfrow, assistant administrator for domestic aviation operations, said in an email dated April 30.   

TSA has also delayed the onboarding date for all new hires to at least July. Those who cannot accept the new date will be placed back into the agency’s candidate pool. 

While officials have enacted a lenient leave policy, TSA leadership has faced some criticism from its workforce for an overly cavalier attitude toward those still working. Pekoske has spent the bulk of his speaking time on each of the agency’s weekly tele-town hall meetings trumpeting the benefits of telework and his own enjoyment of working remotely, according to three individuals on the calls. That message was received as tone deaf by the overwhelming majority of TSA employees, who often cannot work remotely due to the nature of their jobs. 

TSA has also faced criticism for its failure to distribute its sizable inventory of N95 masks, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has deemed most effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. These masks have remained in short supply for medical professionals throughout the pandemic. TSA still has 116,000 N95 masks it purchased in response to the H1N1 outbreak in 2009, according to internal agency talking points obtained by Government Executive. It also received 1.3 million N95 masks from Customs and Border Protection.

All of the masks have exceeded the manufacturer's recommended shelf life, but CDC has told the agency they are still effective. Both CDC and the National Institutes for Health have “determined that N95s manufactured between 2003 and 2013 continue to perform in accordance with” National Institutes of Health standards, TSA said, and the agency’s supply has gone through additional testing to ensure its quality. TSA has made the masks available to any employee who requests one and completes required training. 

According to several executives, however, virtually all frontline screeners prefer surgical masks to the N95s and there has been almost no demand for the more sophisticated equipment. Regional and airport directors have asked if they could donate their supplies to local hospitals, but were told by headquarters leadership they could not. In one email exchange, a federal security director in Minnesota implored leadership to allow him to donate 9,000 N95 masks he had just received and had "very little, to no, need for." He noted Gov. Tim Walz, D-Minn., had requested anyone with surplus N95s to donate them to the state’s department of health, but the director’s request went unheeded. 

“We’ve made N95s available to our staff and, of the officers who wear masks, they overwhelmingly prefer the surgical masks we just received after a couple of months on back order,” the director said. He eventually sent the masks back to a TSA warehouse in Texas. 

Another senior executive said he ultimately got frustrated with headquarters’ restrictions and decided to address the situation on his own. He put 10,000 N95 masks in his truck and personally drove them to the nearest hospital, where he said the nurses cried tears of joy upon receiving the delivery. 

In its talking points, TSA said it was CBP’s decision to keep the N95s internal rather than donate them to health care workers. 

“Our [Homeland Security Department] partners at CBP maintained a stored supply of N95 masks left over after previous pandemics,” TSA said. “CBP agreed to allocate N95 masks to TSA to provide additional protection to our nation’s front line security professionals.”

TSA initially did not provide any masks, multiple executives said, and later allowed employees to wear them upon request. Regional leaders could only begin requiring employees to wear masks within the last two weeks, and TSA’s internal talking points noted the wearing of any masks remains optional in most locations.

“The optimal time has come and gone,” one executive said of screeners wearing masks. “Now there’s no passengers.” 

Earlier in the crisis, another said, airports could not get masks from headquarters and local leaders were forced to try their luck at a nearby CVS. The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Health and Human Services Department began making personal protective equipment deliveries to DHS and other public-facing federal agencies this week. 

More than 500 TSA employees have tested positive for the virus and six have died. In its internal talking points, TSA praised its workforce. 

“Last year, TSA officers worked during the longest government shutdown in history with deferred pay,” the agency said. “And now, during the coronavirus global pandemic, they remain on the front lines carrying out their security mission to ensure that those who need to travel are able to do so safely and securely. Every single day of the year, TSA officers exhibit unparalleled dedication and excellence in protecting our homeland.”