One irony of the federal shutdown is that the federal employees who protect our airports from actual threats of terrorism are paying the price for a political fight over a border wall, said Vincent Castellano Sr., a national vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees.
Castellano was at a busy Westchester County in New York Airport on Tuesday morning, where agents for the Transportation Security Administration were screening a long line of passengers. He joined U.S. Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y., and Westchester County Executive George Latimer to highlight the real-life effects of the federal government shutdown, particularly on the security agents of the TSA.
About 55,000 TSA employees, including about 65 at Westchester County Airport, are expected to work without pay during the shutdown because their jobs are considered —and actually are — essential.
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"We're talking about people making a median of about $35,000, not people making a lot of money," Castellano said. "The (Trump) administration likes to go on and on and on about how bad federal employees are. But these are modestly paid people who show up and do their jobs. This shouldn't be happening."
Castellano resented reports implying that some TSA workers around the country are calling in sick as a protest. He said that some may be calling in because of basic economic concerns, like not wanting to buy gas when President Trump is talking about the shutdown going on and on and they will have to find ways to feed their families.
"I hope this president gets this wall idea out of his head," Castellano said.
Lowey, now chair of the powerful House appropriations committee, limited her direct criticism of the president. But she was frustrated by the Senate leadership's unwillingness to even discuss passing legislation that would keep the government operating in the short term while a deal is sought. "The security of our nation, and the economic security of the people who protect us, demand it," she said.
Latimer said the county is trying to support TSA workers with things like lunch vouchers.
"You don't take as hostages the people who work for you," he said.
How long can airports operate safely?
Gabriel Pedreira, legislative and political organizer for the AFGE in the Northeast, left no doubt about who should get the blame.
"This is not a reality show," he said. "If people don't go to work and don't get paid, it's not a reality show."
AFGE officials, though, insisted they are not taking sides in a highly partisan political showdown. They just want their people to be able to work.
"We don't care whether you're a Democrat, Republican or independent," Castellano said. "We have friends in all places. We have Republican senators who want to vote our way, but (the leadership) won't bring the bills to the floor."
How long can airports operate safely if TSA workers are not getting paid? No one was sure. One thing Republicans and Democrats can agree on is that we need airport safety workers to be focused on their jobs. But the longer the shutdown goes, the more likely workers are to get demoralized and to start thinking about other means of employment.
There was some hope — but not much — that Trump might address the impact of the shutdown on airports during his speech tonight about the southern border.
Many critics of Trump have called on the TV networks not to show the speech, but Lowey said that "of course" they should show it. "He's the president of the United States," she said. "I intend to listen."
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This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: TSA agents fall victim to government shutdown. And they just happen to be protecting our airport security.