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During Shutdown, TSA Workers Call Off Because Of 'Financial Limitations'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Here's one statistic that tells the story of the partial shutdown of the federal government. According to the Transportation Security Administration, 10 percent of its employees stayed home from work on Sunday. TSA said many employees said they couldn't make it in due to, quote, "financial limitations."

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah, the officers at airport security checkpoints have been working without pay. And the news that many are calling in sick, not showing up to work comes just two weeks before the Super Bowl in Atlanta. That city's international airport is the busiest in the world.

GREENE: David Mollett is with the American Federation of Government Employees, a union that represents TSA workers. He's the national vice president of District 5, which includes Georgia. And he joins me from Atlanta. Welcome to the program.

DAVID MOLLETT: Thank you.

GREENE: So what are TSA employees in your union saying about why they can't come into work right now?

MOLLETT: Finances, child care - some of the main issues why they can't make it to work. A lot of these employees work 30 to an hour away from their jobs, and they have to figure out how to get gas to get back and forth because they have no income coming in - a number of single-parent households.

GREENE: It sounds like it's been really disruptive for a lot of families.

MOLLETT: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. Anytime you have to be a working employee and depend on food banks being set up around the airport to feed your family has to be very disheartening.

GREENE: So we've actually seen food banks that have been set up at airports. So the people who are working at those security checkpoints are there checking our IDs, going through our luggage and then getting their meals at food banks because they can't pay for their meals.

MOLLETT: Yes, and by donation by various restaurant organizations around those given cities.

GREENE: What are you telling these employees? I mean, I suppose they - I mean, they feel a sense of responsibility. This is their job. This is the work that they do. They keep people safe. But if they can't make it to work and can't afford to support their families, like what advice do you even give to them?

MOLLETT: Right. Well, the only thing to do is the donations that we have coming in. We're putting them in touch with United Way, who's working with our union to be one of the efforts to get assistance out to them, and then making sure they have the information about what's available in the community near them. But it doesn't change the fact that someone has to make decisions about, do I comply with work rules? Or do I do exactly what the administrations have been saying about seek another job so that I can feed my family, keep a roof over their head? Tough decisions, I'm sure.

GREENE: And so what what are the options? I mean, if some of these workers find other jobs, do they think they can come back and work for the TSA afterwards? Or are we actually going to see a lot of people who are just going on into other lines of work because of the shutdown?

MOLLETT: Well, I'm not sure about the specific numbers, but I do know about the work history and some of the work morals of the new generation. They're not concerned with leaving one job to go to another to take care of themselves. So I don't think they have the same commitment that some of the employees who may have been there for 10 or plus years. You know, so some of those may not even care about coming back, you know, to that job.

GREENE: Obviously, I mean, the biggest issue is the effect on these workers and their families. But I also want to ask you about, you know, how this could affect the nation's transportation network. I mean, if we use the city of Atlanta as a case study, Atlanta is about to host the Super Bowl. Huge numbers of people are going to be flying in. Is there a security risk if there is a shortage of TSA workers?

MOLLETT: Oh, I would say definitely. Anytime you attempt to cut down on the number of - whether it's checkpoints, number of individuals doing those checks, then you absolutely increase the risk of exposure to danger for the public.

GREENE: And have you talked to people at the airport? Like, are they getting ready for that or are bracing for something like that?

MOLLETT: Yes, they are. They are gearing up similar to what what they do for Thanksgiving, holidays - or the big holidays when they know it's going to be an influx of travel. So I'm sure they're doing all those things and preparing for that as best they can.

GREENE: I know you're at a conference in Atlanta with union leaders from different government agencies. What are some of the larger themes that are coming up?

MOLLETT: Some of the main things that we're talking about is the shutdown - make sure that leadership understand where the resources are, so they can get that out to their membership, let them know what can assist them during this period of the shutdown.

GREENE: David Mollett is with the American Federation of Government Employees. Thanks so much for your time this morning.

MOLLETT: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.