Canadians travelling to the United States anytime soon may want to prepare for longer lineups at the airports as more Transportation Security Administration employees (TSA) agents are calling in sick amid the partial government shutdown.
What is being dubbed as the “blue flu”— in reference to the blue shirts TSA agents wear — has sparked the agency to release a statement Saturday acknowledging sick days began “over the holiday period and have increased.” However, the TSA said it is causing a minimal impact.
“TSA is closely monitoring the situation,” the agency statement said. “Security effectiveness will not be compromised.”
TSA released the information in response to a CNN report saying hundreds of agents, who are required to work without paychecks during the shutdown, called in sick last week at four major U.S. airports. CNN said as many as 170 employees at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport called in sick each day last week.
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Callouts also increased by 200-300 per cent at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, CNN reported.
And the delays could impact Canadian travellers. On Saturday, Air Canada warned passengers travelling to the U.S. to arrive at Canadians airports three hours before takeoff due to “processing times of customers.”
Toronto’s Pearson airport also reminded travellers heading to the U.S. to arrive three hours before departure.
What is happening?
Around 51,000 TSA agents have been working without pay since the government shut down on Dec. 21 — and there is still no end in sight as the Republicans and Democrats fight over the border wall funding.
The next payday for the TSA employees is supposed to happen Friday, according to NBC News — but if the cheque does not arrive, this could prompt more employees to have to call in sick and look for part-time work to pay the bills.
“If you don’t have a check to pay your bills, what are you going to do?” Rudy Garcia, president of the American Federation of Government Employees 1040 local, the union for Dallas TSA employees, told NBC News.
“You will look for something outside of what you’re doing now.”
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The TSA told Global News over an email Monday and said the agency screened around 2.22 million passengers Sunday, and 99.9 per cent of passengers waited less than 30 minutes.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation, on average passengers wait around 20 minutes in line to get to the security screening checkpoint.
Michael Bilello, a communications spokesperson for the TSA, took to Twitter on Saturday to say only 5.5 per cent of administration’s workforce called in sick that day, citing that a normal day was 3.5 per cent.
He also said wait times “may be affected.”
What about other airport employees?
The TSA agents are among the 420,000 “essential” federal employees that are working without pay during the partial shutdown — including agents from the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).
There have been no reports of increased CBP agents calling in sick.
Other airport workers, such as air traffic controllers, are also set to work without getting paid. Their next paycheck is due Jan. 15. But the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said there have been no widespread reports of controllers calling in sick, according to NBC.
On Jan. 2, the U.S. national pilots association sent a letter to President Donald Trump urging him to end the shutdown as it is “affected the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace.”
Capt. Joe DePete, the president of Air Line Pilots Association International, said that he was writing on behalf of 61,000 pilots and that the “nation’s airspace system is a complex transportation network that involves government and industry partnerships to function properly, and the disruptions being caused by the shutdown are threatening the safe operations of this network.”
He also said there are fewer safety inspectors with the FAA during the shutdown, it will impact safety and potentially put passengers and airline crews at risk.
DePete added that because TSA and FAA employees are working without paychecks, “at some point, these dedicated federal employees will encounter personal financial damages that will take a long time from which to recover, if at all.”