TSA agents quit amid shutdown — but not at these airports with private security

What happens when the government shuts down?

The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.
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The world won't end if Washington can't find a way to pass a funding bill. That's the truth about a government "shutdown": the government doesn't shut down.

Transportation Security Administration agents are quitting and calling in sick as the weeks-long government shutdown forces them to work without pay, creating long security lines and logistical troubles nationwide.

But not everywhere: Security screenings are continuing without a hitch at a handful of airports, from San Francisco and Kansas City to Bradenton, Florida. That’s because private companies provide screenings there instead of federal TSA agents. And those agents are still getting paychecks.

“This is not having an effect,” Fredrick Piccolo, president and CEO for the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport, said in a phone interview. “They’re getting paid.”

TSA lists nearly two dozen U.S. airports that participate in the Screening Partnership Program, which allows commercial airports to apply for the opportunity to use qualified private companies for their security. Airports in Atlantic City, New Jersey; Bozeman, Montana; and Key West, Florida, all participate.

Piccolo said the airport switched to security company Trinity Technology Group a few years ago after the airport board had a “philosophical discussion” and decided the private sector might be more effective than federal agents. The screening process is almost identical today, according to Piccolo: TSA chose the security company, and now the federal agency supervises the company and pays its contract.

“The only thing the airport gets to do is say: We’d like to have private security do this job,” Piccolo said. “Everything’s almost the same, outside of the uniform.”

President Donald Trump told reporters that he would prefer to work with Congress on a deal to end the partial government shutdown and is open to compromise but will use his emergency powers to circumvent Congress if they can't come to agreement.

Private security agents are also helping Kansas City’s airport weather the partial shutdown, which came about after President Trump refused to sign a funding bill that didn’t include billions for a border wall.

“There is no impact of the government shutdown at Kansas City International Airport,” spokesman Joe McBride said in an email on Wednesday, adding that Akal Security provides the screenings. “That contract is funded so Akal employees are being paid.”

Same goes in San Francisco.

“The current contractor for the TSA here is Covenant Aviation Security,” SFO spokesman Doug Yakel said, according to SFGate. “Those employees continue to be paid, so no impact here.”

Meanwhile, Miami’s airport is shutting off one of its terminals on Saturday so TSA can better handle lines at the most-used checkpoints, the Miami Herald reports. An airport spokesman told the Herald that TSA agents are calling in sick in numbers twice as high as usual.

The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing more than 44,000 of the country’s 50,000 TSA officers, said it has sued the federal government for forcing agents to work without pay. TSA agents have been required to work without pay since the shutdown began Dec. 22 because they are considered “essential” workers; federal employees in the unfunded agencies considered non-essential aren’t being paid but aren’t being asked to work.

“Every day I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck,” Hydrick Thomas, TSA Council president for AFGE, said in a statement about the shutdown’s impact on the agency. “Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown.”

Piccolo said that while the Sarasota-Bradenton airport’s security screenings currently aren’t impacted, that could change if the partial shutdown drags on indefinitely and the contractor, Trinity, doesn’t get its lump-sum payment from TSA for security services.

Labor unions argue that there are drawbacks to private security — and that “the real reason airports want to go with contractors is simple: to cut costs,” Marketplace reported in 2016.

“We believe that national security should be a federal government operation and not turned over to for-profit private companies,” said James Mudrock, president of AFGE Local 1230, which represents TSA workers in Sacramento, California, according to Marketplace.

Security agents aren’t the only airport workers impacted by the government shutdown.

Federal aviation inspectors, whose roles are classified as “non-essential,” have been off the job since the shutdown began, the Miami Herald reports.

“We are another layer of safety,” said Troy Tomey, a 52-year-old inspector in South Florida, according to the Herald. “We’re the last check of the box. Taking us out of it, mistakes can happen.”

Tomey said that the day before the shutdown the tail and wing of two cargo planes collided on the ground at Miami International Airport — and that federal inspectors caught damage that the airline missed, and reported it to the plane’s manufacturer, the Herald reports. Because Tomey is furloughed, he said he can’t make sure the planes are actually fixed.

“I’m 99.9 percent sure they did, but we don’t know,” Tomey said, according to the Herald. “Now they’re back in the air flying.”

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