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US transport security workers forced to work for free during shutdown call in sick en masse

US transport security workers forced to work for free during shutdown call in sick en masse
US Transportation Security Administration employees are calling in sick in protest over being forced to work without pay during the government shutdown, which shows no sign of ending after 14 days.

After a recent CNN report that call-ins have shot up, more than doubling in some cases and affecting four major airports, TSA and its parent agency initially denied the problem existed, and are now downplaying its scale.

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TSA union officials claim the call-ins are not an organized protest, explaining that workers are being called out to work at second jobs as the shutdown begins to bite. But federal officials reportedly believe the "blue flu" – TSA uniforms are blue – has all the hallmarks of a coordinated protest against the shutdown.

TSA employees are considered "essential" – meaning even though their funding has run dry, they have to report to work anyway. Of the approximately 800,000 employees affected by the shutdown, about 420,000 are considered "essential" and forced to keep working.

A Department of Homeland Security spokesperson initially denied there was any "sickout" problem at all.

The TSA then issued a statement cautioning that while wait times "may be affected," they currently "remain well within TSA standards" and "security effectiveness will not be compromised" – not necessarily a reassuring statement, given the TSA's "standards" for both wait times and security.

TSA spokesman Michael Bilello also tried to quash the rumors but inadvertently confirmed them, revealing that a full 5.5 percent of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport's TSA force called in sick on Friday – significantly more than the typical 3.5 percent.

TSA union president Hydrick Thomas told CNN that around 170 employees had called in sick every day of the past week from JFK International Airport, forcing the remaining employees to work overtime – and still for no pay. 

TSA employees are among the lowest-paid federal workers, with salaries starting at $25,000 per year. While they have been promised what they're due once the shutdown ends, the impossibility of saving on such a low salary renders such promises empty. Other TSA employees have found more creative ways of making ends meet.

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