Should Trump fire TSA no-shows?

Clarence V. McKee

In August 1981, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,359 air-traffic controllers striking in violation of his order for them to return to work and declared a lifetime ban on their rehiring.

Today, during the longest government shutdown in history, the issue is not with air traffic controllers striking or not showing up for work ‒ yet. It is with the 55,000 Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) employees who screen about 800 million airplane passengers each year considered to be essential employees and are required to work without pay.

Refuse to work

Notwithstanding the fact that they will be paid retroactively when the shutdown ends,  The Hill reports that “hundreds of TSA officers have called in sick… from at least four major U.S. airports…”

Hydrick Thomas, president of the TSA Council of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE) union, stated, “Every day I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck… The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers…”

What is the impact?

Michael Bilello, TSA›s assistant administrator for public affairs, tweeted “… TSA experienced a national rate of 7.6 percent unscheduled absences compared to a 3.2 percent rate one year ago, Monday, January 15, 2018.” This is more than twice the rate of last year on the same date.

I can understand the plight of TSA workers; I can empathize with them and their families. However, they do have an obligation to the public. I commend their colleagues who are honoring their commitment to TSA, the flying public, and commercial aviation safety by working.

As noted above, they will be paid. A January 16, 2019, editorial in Investor’s Business Daily (IBD), «Government Shutdown: Pampered Federal Workers Don›t Deserve Anyone›s Pity,» concluded: “The government will eventually reopen. All of these workers will be back on the job. And they’ll all get paid for the days they stayed home. So please, spare us the crocodile tears.”

Bullseye! By not showing up, the “no-shows” are putting an extra burden on the shoulders of their colleagues who are working. It is unfair to them.

Others are working

TSA employees are not the only Department of Homeland Security (DHS) workers affected by the shutdown. It also applies to the U.S. Secret Service, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the Border Patrol, other DHS entities and several other federal agencies. As far as I know, there has been no significant increase in the numbers of people failing to go to work at these or other federal agencies impacted by the shutdown because they are not getting paid.

Several veterans’ groups urged the president ‒ and the Congress ‒ to end the shutdown. They said, in the words of USA Today, that, “tens of thousands of veterans in the federal workforce are facing increasingly difficult financial hardships as they continue to go without pay.”

Regis “Rege” Riley national commander of American Veterans, AMVETS, said: “We ask the president and the Congress to get together, get your act together and get this situation resolved.” There were no threats of their members staying home because they were not getting paid which we are seeing with some TSA workers.

Impact thus far

The question is, how long and how many more screeners staying home will cause a disruption in commercial aviation around the nation ‒ which would have a negative economic impact?

It’s at that point that the president would have to order TSA employees to return to work ‒ within a time certain ‒ with the threat of firing them with a lifetime ban on returning, as Reagan did with the air traffic controllers. Just the discussion of a presidential threat to fire “no-show” TSA screeners would create such a political uproar that Democrats would come to the table to negotiate with the president.

If TSA workers and their union want to really help end the shutdown, they should be calling their House and Senate Democrat representatives urging them to work with the president.

I believe the public would support the president ordering screeners back to work if the situation deteriorates to the point where travelers are forced to stand in security check lines for 1-2 hours, causing a severe disruption in commercial aviation.

As the IBD editorial pointed out: “…let’s remember who we are talking about here. While there are certainly plenty of hardworking, dedicated federal workers, they are, for the most part, incredibly pampered. They get better pay and more generous benefits than private sector workers doing the same things. They work fewer hours. And they have far greater job security.”


Clarence V. McKee is a government, political and media relations consultant and president of McKee Communications, Inc., as well as a contributor. This article originally appeared on


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