Beware of the Unpaid TSA Agent

The Obama administration’s latest DHS shutdown warning focuses on the federal workers who won’t get their paychecks.

Transportation Security Administration (TSA) agents screen passengers at Los Angeles International Airport on May 2, 2011 in Los Angeles, California. 
National Journal
Rachel Roubein
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Rachel Roubein
Feb. 20, 2015, 12:46 p.m.

The next government shutdown may already have its poster child: The unpaid airport screener.

There won’t be any shuttered national parks if Homeland Security Department funding runs out, nor will there be any unmailed Social Security checks or unpatrolled borders. What there will be — as Democrats are increasingly eager to remind the country — are tens of thousands of federal employees working without a paycheck.

That number would include plenty of desk-bound bureaucrats. But it also would include, as White House spokesman Josh Earnest noted at Friday’s press briefing, Transportation Security Administration workers — the people who protect the airports that lawmakers will visit as they return to Washington.

“And as they do so, they’re going to go through security, just like other Americans, and I hope they’re going to take a minute and look in the eye of TSA officers, who are representing their country,” Earnest said, later adding: “These are good Americans. They’re patriotic. “¦ But they’re going to not get paid on time unless members of Congress step up to do their jobs.”

With DHS funding set to expire Feb. 28, some Republicans already are making the case that a shutdown would be relatively painless. Most Americans would barely notice, the argument goes, since the vast majority of DHS workers would stay on the job. The Obama administration has responded with a long list of potentially dire effects, including the loss of homeland security grants to local governments and law enforcement agencies.

And the shutdown wouldn’t be painless for those DHS workers, most of whom would not get paid for the hours they put in — at least, not until the shutdown ends.

“A lot of the [Customs and Border Protection] officers here are very concerned about it,” said Barry Kleinman, president of the National Treasury Employees Union chapter of CBP employees in Philadelphia. “We’re middle-class people, and people rely on their paychecks every week. Some people live paycheck-to-paycheck. They have mortgages, they have children, they have families.”

Colleagues are constantly approaching Kleinman, who is a CBP officer, asking questions: ” ‘What’s happening? … Are we going to get through this?’ And I tell them it’s up in the air.”

During the October 2013 government shutdown, more than 85 percent of DHS employees reported to work, according to a Congressional Research Service report on the department’s funding lapse. Many of the employees’ duties are considered necessary to saving lives or protecting property, so they stayed on the job. TSA, for example, kept roughly 93 percent of its workers on duty.

If the 2013 episode shutdown is any indicator, employees who would continue receiving scheduled paychecks in this scenario work for agencies that don’t rely on the annual appropriations process for funding.

That means payment would continue for most employees of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the agency that was largely responsible for implementing President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, an agency spokesperson confirmed.

But last week a Texas judge temporarily halted the expansion of Obama’s November actions on immigration. So USCIS has put implementing the actions on hold to provide temporary work permits and deportation deferrals to more than four million undocumented immigrants, according to an agency spokesperson.

USCIS, a mostly fee-funded agency, kept 97 percent of its workforce during the 2013 16-day government hiatus, but for a different reason: Employees of agencies that aren’t funded through the annual appropriations process continue receiving normal pay, leave and more, according to an Office of Personnel Management October 2013 report titled “Guidance for Shutdown Furloughs.”

Those working without pay are compensated after Congress passes and the president signs a short- or long-term funding bill. Paychecks for furloughed employees — those who stop their jobs when funding expires — requires an action from Congress.

But during a shutdown, when the timetable for a paycheck is hazy, some federal employees might need help financially. The nonprofit Federal Employee Education and Assistance Fund has a program to aid federal workers in the position of missing a paycheck, providing no interest loans to help pay basic living expenses, such as rent, mortgages and utility bills.

In 2013, FEEA received several hundred requests for assistance paying bills, according to Robyn Kehoe, the fund’s director of communications and development.

And living without a set-in-stone date for when a paycheck will come can be stressful for those with tight budgets. “For a lot people, that’s the big concern is not knowing,” Kehoe said.

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