The union representing Transportation Security Officers (TSOs) says TSA is not doing enough to protect officers and the flying public from COVID-19. The American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), which represents nearly 46,000 TSA officers nationwide, is calling on the agency to increase safety protocols after three officers at San Jose International Airport have tested positive for the virus.
On Tuesday morning, the union sent an email to TSA Administrator David Pekoske requesting that N95 masks, which are designed to protect wearers from the virus, be provided to the front-line workforce. The agency denied the request. By Tuesday evening, 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.”
AFGE first wrote to TSA Administrator Pekoske on Jan. 29 and asked for TSA to aggressively respond to the emerging threat of coronavirus before exposure and potential infection of employees.
“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 the union says 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.”