Vaccine mandate, holiday travel season loom for TSA workforce

The Transportation Security Administration told FCW that it doesn't expect the upcoming deadline for feds to comply with vaccination requirements to cause disruptions.

TSA airport screener with mask (TSA)

The holiday travel season is cranking into gear as the deadline for federal employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 approaches next week. That requirement includes workers at the Transportation Security Administration.

Everett Kelley, national president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents about 45,000 frontline screening officers at TSA, told lawmakers at a subcommittee hearing of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday that the union is concerned with staffing shortages at the agency. TSA has long struggled with low morale, high turnover and pay dissatisfaction among frontline screening employees.

"There's such a high turnover, and the fact that we've not done an exceptional job making sure that the workforce is replenished … this is what's going to make the challenge," Kelley said.

"It's certainly my belief that the lack of staffing is not really related to the mandate" he said. "The lack of staffing and the issues that we may have come this holiday season … will be because of the fact that we just did not replenish the workforce."

He said that the frontline screener workforce has shrunk by "several thousand" during the course of the pandemic, and that although the agency is hiring, many new hires remain in training.

The agency set a goal of hiring 6,000 TSOs in early 2021, which it met by Sept. 30. The agency is continuing to hire as part of its normal recruitment activities, a TSA spokesperson told FCW.

Republicans at the hearing and elsewhere on the Hill have expressed concern that the vaccine mandate could deplete the TSA workforce.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) has also publicly urged the agency to create a contingency plan for the holidays regarding potential disruptions due to the vaccine requirement.

"The administration's mandate that all federal employees be fully vaccinated from COVID-19 by next week, Nov. 22, could contribute to a lack of staffing at airports," said ranking member of the subcommittee, Carlos Gimenez (R-Fla.).

TSA itself says it isn't expecting that.

"We do not anticipate any disruptions because of the vaccination requirements," the TSA spokesperson told FCW.

TSA has "made good progress," said the TSA spokesperson. "The compliance rate is very high, and we still do not have full data yet."

On Oct. 13, TSA Administrator David Pekoske told CNNthat about 60% of the TSA workforce was vaccinated.

The upcoming deadline is not a "cliff, but a step to further counsel any unvaccinated employees," the TSA spokesperson said.

White House officials have said that unvaccinated feds will face education and counseling once the deadline passes before any discipline or termination occurs.

Kelley and other witnesses representing federal employees said during the hearing that their organizations want the administration to extend the deadline for feds to be fully vaccinated to Jan. 4, as it did for federal contractors. The National Federation of Federal Employees also joined the call for the administration to delay the deadline last week.

AFGE's push for this is in the name of "consistency" and "fairness" for feds working alongside contractors with the January deadline, Kelley said during the hearing.

Kelley told the committee that "that's the reason why we're asking the administration to at least give some sense of parity [between feds and contractors] when it comes to the vaccine mandate deadlines." However, Kelley said he did not believe that the vaccination mandate was the sole reason for high turnover among TSOs.

"If I say that it's not going to affect it, I would be incorrect, I know that," he said. "I'm just saying that there are a lot more reasons why [TSOs] are leaving the jobsite [other] than the vaccination."