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TSA agents are calling in sick rather than work without pay during the shutdown

The Trump administration underestimated the full scale of a long-term shutdown.

Hundreds of TSA agents called in sick this week
Win McNamee/Getty

Airport security workers around the country are opting to call in sick rather than work without pay, widening the ripple effects of the partial government shutdown to include travelers and everyday Americans.

According to union leaders, hundreds of employees with the Transportation Security Administration called out of work at major airports across the country this week, with TSA officials acknowledging the uptick in absent employees on Friday.

And while officials say it hasn’t affected the quality of security measures, airline travelers may start feeling the burdens of the political showdown between President Donald Trump and lawmakers.

”Wait times may be affected depending on the number of call outs,” a TSA spokesperson said in a statement this week, adding that the screenings will “remain well within TSA standards.” Airport checkpoints must take a maximum of 30 minutes for regular screenings, and 10 minutes for premium passengers. As of Thursday, average screening times still met those markers, officials said.

In the more than two full weeks of a partial government shutdown, the fallout of major agencies screeching to a halt has had a disparate impact on the public, hitting mostly low-wage federal workers who are either furloughed or working without pay. Aside from closures at public institutions and parks, most everyday Americans have been shielded from the effects.

Congress needs to push through seven new spending bills in order to turn the lights back on at the roughly quarter of the federal government that remains unfunded. The sticking point is funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which holds the pursestrings to funds over border security. So far, Trump has refused to step away from his $5 billion border wall; congressional Democrats have meanwhile capped their border security offer to $1.3 billion.

But the longer the shutdown continues to drag on, the more programs that intersect with the public could be affected. Already, stories are emerging of people seeing delays for everything from receiving their tax returns, to some farmers counting on federal loans to see them through the trade war with China.

The Trump administration did not anticipate the full scale of a long-term shutdown

Federal officials are still trying to assess the full scope of the border wall showdown. It was only this week that top officials within the administration realized the full scale of how a protracted shutdown might play out, the Washington Post reports. Agency heads are now reportedly exploring their options to intervene if new funding is not delivered.

One more week, and the US could pass the threshold for the longest government shutdown in history. Still, President Trump emerged from talks with congressional leaders Friday defiant, threatening to keep the shutdown going for months, maybe even years (though the likelihood of him being able to pull that off is low, as Vox’s Li Zhou explains).

Federal officials are now coming up with contingency plans to ward off the ill-effects of funding gaps.

Around 420,000 federal employees are working on the expectation they’ll receive back-pay, as they have during previous shutdowns. They’ll really start to see the full weight of the shutdown on January 11, their scheduled payday. Another 380,000 federal workers have been furloughed.

What could be impacted if the shutdown drags on

  • Food stamps, known officially as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is a rare program that is renewed each year, regardless of whether Congress has issued it funding. But a protracted shutdown would dip deep into its reserves. The USDA has contingency funds that would cover only a portion of SNAP benefits through February, the Washington Post reports. By March, those emergency funds are expected to run dry.
  • Subsidized school lunches for children in low-income families — like food stamps — have limited reserve funds.
  • Tax refunds will face greater delays the longer it takes for a resolution to the shutdown. The Internal Revenue Service has previously stated that it would not issue tax refunds in the event of a shutdown, though it’s unclear whether all refunds will be put on ice until the agency fully reopens, or whether the process will be slowed.

What’s already run out of carry-over funds since the shutdown began:

  • The EPA sent an advisory noting that funds for the agency would run dry by Friday. After midnight Dec. 28, employees were placed on furlough.
  • The Smithsonian and National Zoo stayed open initially, but ran out of funding after New Year’s. After Jan. 2, all 21 institutions under the Smithsonian umbrella and the National Zoo were forced to shutter until funding is restored.
  • The US Department of Agriculture had promised to help out farmers hurt by Trump’s trade war with China. But as the AP reports, farmers who expected loans and financial assistance are going to have to wait a little longer to see their checks in the mail.