The next vaccine mandate staffing crunch: TSA?

(AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

All across the country, unions representing workers in many walks of life ranging from police and firefighters to the healthcare industry have been pushing back against Joe Biden’s federal vaccine mandates. One of the primary complaints has centered around the fear that if the unvaccinated are terminated from their jobs in significant numbers, those organizations will be unable to fulfill their duties. Now you can add another group to the growing list. The union representing the workers of the Transportation and Safety Administration (TSA) has raised a similar complaint. They’re saying that losing a significant number of TSA agents just as we are approaching the holidays, typically the busiest time for the travel industry of the entire year, would be disastrous. If they can’t have the mandate canceled or altered to allow an option of submitting negative COVID test results, the deadline should at least be pushed back to after the new year arrives. (Government Executive)

Lawmakers and union officials expressed concerns on Tuesday about disruptions to air travel during the upcoming holiday season, pointing in part to President Biden’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate and potential discipline butting up against peak airport traffic.

Transportation Security Administration employees, like the rest of the federal workforce, have until Nov. 22 to demonstrate they are fully vaccinated or request a religious or medical exemption. Everett Kelley, president of the American Federation of Government Employees, which represents TSA’s 50,000 transportation security officers, told a panel of the House Homeland Security Committee on Tuesday the deadline would hurt morale and provide a distraction for workers during their busiest time of the year. He reiterated the union’s call for the deadline to be pushed to Jan. 4 to bring it in line with the date for federal contractors and give employees more time to consider their options.

We don’t yet know how much of an impact would result from TSA losing its unvaccinated workers because the agency hasn’t released an update on employee vaccination rates in more than a month. In the middle of October, the agency was claiming a 60% vaccination rate, far, far below the targeted goal. The head of the agency is claiming they’ve made “huge progress” since then, but they refused to elaborate on just how “huge” the progress was, which seems rather suspicious.

The current deadline for TSA workers to be vaccinated is November 22, only five days from now. The government is supposed to engage in “phased” disciplinary measures for those who do not comply. They would first be offered counseling. After that would come a suspension without pay and finally termination of their employment. But even if they haven’t been let go yet, how inspired will those workers be to show up for work when they know they are going to be on their way to the unemployment line right in the middle of the holiday season?

Even if they somehow manage to hit a vaccination rate of more than 95% or come up with a compromise of some sort, the agency is starting off this race in the hole. They let a lot of their workers go last year when travel basically ceased because of the pandemic. To date, they haven’t met their hiring goals to come back up to full staffing so they are still more than 4,000 short of pre-pandemic levels. That would make it hard enough to keep up with the Thanksgiving and Christmas traffic by itself. Losing a bunch of unvaccinated workers on top of that would turn everyone’s holiday travel plans into a nightmare.

Of course, none of this may matter if the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals winds up continuing to put the vaccine mandate on hold. Yes, it’s true that Joe Biden has continued to act as if he can simply ignore the courts and plow ahead with the mandates, but if the courts end up blocking him, the unions will have immediate recourse to prevent anyone from being discharged for this reason. We shouldn’t have to wait much longer to find out because these cases are being heard on a priority basis already.