TSA internal email reveals impact on security operations at smaller US airports

PHOTO: An employee with the Transportation Security Administration checks the documents of a traveler at Reagan National Airport in Washington D.C., Jan. 6, 2019. PlayJoshua Roberts/Reuters
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The increasing number of screeners calling out sick at the Transportation Security Administration is impacting its operations at smaller U.S. airports, but the agency's effectiveness to protect the country's flights has not been diminished, a TSA spokesperson told ABC News.

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A Southern California TSA official recognized "adversely impacted security operations" at Palm Springs International Airport, according to an email obtained by CNN and confirmed to ABC News by TSA.

With a smaller workforce, the increased number of employees calling out sick has put the brunt of the shutdown on smaller airports, TSA spokesperson Jim Gregory acknowledged to ABC News. When employees are calling out across the board, the small teams at airports like Palm Springs feel it first.

But Gregory stressed the country's airports and airlines would not be imperiled by any hit to security operations, citing strict standards and a program that sends screeners and managers from airports under less stressful circumstances to any airport needing backup. Dubbed the "National Deployment Force," TSA has the ability to quickly dispatch more frontline screeners, canine teams and specially trained Homeland Security personnel. They are often used during major events like the Super Bowl or in the wake of natural disasters when hometown TSA employees are unable make it to work.

PHOTO: A Transportation Security Agency agent checks the identification of travelers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., Jan. 7, 2019. Erik S Lesser/EPA via Shutterstock
A Transportation Security Agency agent checks the identification of travelers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va., Jan. 7, 2019.

The email was written Monday by Martin Elam, a deputy federal security director, to all TSA staff at the Palm Springs airport and mentioned "excessive unscheduled absences recently experienced at PSP," and threatened disciplinary action.

"Your unauthorized unscheduled absence will be coded by payroll as absent without leave (AWOL)," Elam wrote. "At the conclusion of the government shutdown, an employee's AWOL status may result in progressive disciplinary action."

TSA spokesperson Michael Bilello on Monday said that 4.6 percent of TSA employees did not show up for work on Monday nationwide, compared to 3.8 percent on the same day in 2018.

Many Democrats spent the day decrying the shutdown and its effect on thousands of federal employees tasked with protecting America's skies and airports.

PHOTO:A Transportation Security Agency agent checks the identification of travelers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va.. Jan. 7, 2019. Erik S Lesser/EPA via Sutterstock
PHOTO:A Transportation Security Agency agent checks the identification of travelers at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Va.. Jan. 7, 2019.

"There will come a breaking point for many of these individuals and families. Why are we doing this? Why are we pushing them to the point where they've got their minds on their children, and who's going to take care of them, and who's going to pay for day care?” Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois told reporters at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.

He added that officers continue to serve the country despite not being paid. They are scheduled to miss their first paycheck this Friday unless TSA secures congressional funding.

“I'm not getting paid. I just found out," Christine Vitel, a TSA officer at O'Hare said. "I'm not going to be able to pay my mortgage."

Donald Evans, a union representative for TSA employees, said, “They're looking to survive."

He added, "They just want a roof over their head, and heat in the winter, and food on their table ... they want to provide for their families.”