David Zalubowski / AP

Concerns Raised With TSA Staffing and Vaccine Mandate Ahead of Holiday Travel

Agency expresses confidence in its workforce but other officials warn disruptions are likely.

Lawmakers and union officials expressed concerns on Tuesday about disruptions to air travel during the upcoming holiday season, pointing in part to President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and potential discipline butting up against peak airport traffic. 

Transportation Security Administration employees, like the rest of the federal workforce, have until Nov. 22 to demonstrate they are fully vaccinated or request a religious or medical exemption. Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA’s 50,000 transportation security officers, told a panel of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday the deadline would hurt morale and provide a distraction for workers during their busiest time of the year. He reiterated the union’s call for the deadline to be pushed to Jan. 4 to bring it in line with the date for federal contractors and give employees more time to consider their options. 

“The effect upon morale of federal employees being subject to possible discipline at this time of year cannot be overstated,” Kelley said in his written testimony. “TSOs should be focused on protecting the flying public during this peak holiday travel season, not on the threat of discipline that could result in losing their jobs.”

Biden administration guidance has laid out a progressive disciplinary process for unvaccinated employees, starting with counseling and proceeding to suspension and, ultimately, firing. Kelley warned that TSA is already short staffed as it let its rolls shrink during the pandemic and its corresponding drop off in air travel. The agency announced earlier this year it would seek to restore and grow its workforce, anticipating a surge in travel, but was still down 4,000 workers from the outset of the COVID-19 outbreak as of June. Kelley stressed that TSA has not delivered on all the hiring it promised, adding many of those it has brought on are still in training and not yet out on the floor. 

Kelley said a deadline delay would have the added benefit of ensuring no existing personnel are suspended or fired when they are most needed. 

“While AFGE has strongly encouraged all of its members to get the COVID vaccine, there are some who have not done so,” he said, adding many employees are seeking exemptions. “This doesn’t have to be an added burden on holiday travel.” Kelley said his unvaccinated members should have the opportunity to gather with family over the holidays “and contemplate what is important to them.” 

TSA last provided an update on its vaccination figures in mid-October, when Administrator David Pekoske said just 60% of his workforce had documented they were fully inoculated. Other agencies that have released their workforce vaccination data have seen rates increase as the deadline approached, though Pekoske said the agency was “building contingency plans” for a scenario in which it saw staffing shortages as a result of the mandate. 

Max Weitzner, a TSA spokesman, declined to detail the agency’s current vaccination rate, saying only it has “made good progress” and was still collecting data. The agency is engaging workers to ensure they know how to upload their information, but said the compliance rate is “very high.”

“We do not anticipate any disruptions because of the vaccination requirements,” Weitzner said. “We have made huge progress in our vaccination efforts, and as we approach the Nov. 22 deadline, we view that as not so much a cliff, but a step to further counsel any unvaccinated employees.”

Rep. Carlos Giminez, R-Fla., the top Republican on the Transportation and Maritime Security panel that hosted Tuesday’s hearing, said he could not understand how TSA would adequately staff its checkpoints without its unvaccinated employees. 

“The TSA workforce has shown their dedication to our nation day in and day out and now they’re being threatened with being disciplined or even losing their jobs,” Giminez said. 

Kelley expressed confidence the TSA workforce would be able to address any challenge that comes its way, but conceded disciplining employees during the holiday season would have an impact on operations.

“If I say it’s not going to affect it, that would be incorrect,” Kelley said. 

Rep. Jeff Van Drew, R-N.J., said there was little doubt the mandate would cause disruptions.

“The fact that we're going to lose some of them is going to increase the challenge even more,” Van Drew said. 

Rep. Betsy Watson Coleman, D-N.J., who chairs the panel, also said she is paying particular attention to how many employees remain unvaccinated and how it will affect TSA’s workflow. 

“We’re all concerned with that question,” Watson Coleman said.