The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is not doing enough to protect officers and the flying public from COVID-19. AFGE, which represents nearly 46,000 TSA officers nationwide, is calling on the agency to increase safety protocols after four officers at San Jose International Airport have tested positive for the virus with three more confirmed cases being reported in Orlando, Fort Lauderdale, and Atlanta.
Back in January, our union asked TSA Administrator David Pekoske to instruct agency management, particularly at gateway airports, to allow Transportation Security Officers to wear N95 respiratory masks, which are designed to protect wearers from the virus, upon request. Any additional measures recommended by public health authorities should be implemented immediately as the situation unfolded. Pekoske denied our request.
On March 10, the union sent an email to Pekoske requesting that N95 be provided to the front-line workforce. The agency denied the request. By the evening that same day, it was reported that three TSA officers at San Jose International Airport tested positive for COVID-19.
“Despite our union’s numerous requests for adequate masks and protective equipment, TSA has failed to properly equip our officers with the resources they need to prevent infection,” said AFGE National President Everett Kelley.
TSA has provided optional surgical masks to officers, but according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) surgical masks do not block small particles from coughs and sneezes that spread COVID-19.
Because of their jobs, TSA officers are uniquely susceptible to this outbreak. “Our officers screen more than 2 million passengers across the country every day,” said AFGE TSA Council President Hydrick Thomas. “We do everything we can to protect passengers, but who is protecting us?”
TSA officers are constantly in close contact with the traveling public, including international passengers entering the country from overseas. They are often exposed to contaminants, illnesses, and diseases.
In San Jose, approximately 40 employees were told to self-quarantine after having contact with infected workers.
“It’s clear that not enough is being done to protect TSOs from this virus,” said Thomas. “There is a shortage of cleaning supplies, masks, and protective gloves at many airports.”
“This is exactly what our union wanted to avoid when we first brought this to the agency’s attention,” said Kelley. “For years, AFGE has called on Congress and TSA to provide TSOs with the fair workplace rights and protections that they have been denied since the agency’s creation. If TSOs had those rights, employees may have been able to use those additional collective bargaining protections to work with the agency on a solution.”
The House recently passed a bill to give TSA officers full collective bargaining rights, but a Senate companion bill still does not have enough cosponsors.
“Many of us joined TSA after 9/11, because we wanted to serve our country,” said Thomas. “Last year, we worked for 35 days without pay during the shutdown. In 2013, we lost an officer in the line of duty and now seven years later, we’re still fighting for the proper workplace protections we deserve.”
The lack of proper personal protective equipment and preventive measures for TSOs is coupled with the agency’s announcement last month that it is halting hiring and overtime hours— a decision that will exacerbate the already existing staffing issues at TSA.
“These federal workers deserve better than this,” said Kelley. “AFGE is echoing our call for adequate protective gear and workplace rights for TSA officers.”