Federal Immigration Agency, TSA Face Budget Shortfalls During Pandemic
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Workers in businesses large and small keep filing for unemployment. One sector that's been largely spared so far from layoffs is the federal government. That may be about to change for workers at at least two agencies. NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: Early this month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services notified more than 13,000 of its employees that they may be furloughed at the start of August. USCIS is the federal agency that processes citizenship applications, requests for refugee status and issues green cards. It says because of the coronavirus pandemic, applications for its services have dropped by half. And since the agency is funded by application fees, it's facing a $1.2 billion shortfall.
DANIELLE SPOONER: Yes, there is a lot of concern about being furloughed.
NAYLOR: That's Danielle Spooner, a USCIS employee in St. Albans, Vt. Spooner is president of the American Federation of Government Employees council that represents USCIS workers.
SPOONER: You know, a lot of people feel that working for the government has been, you know, a secure endeavor and you can make a career out of that. But they're realizing that we are susceptible to these kinds of things as private industry. So yeah, people are worried.
NAYLOR: The administration has written to Congress about the shortfall but has not yet formally asked for any additional funding. Democratic Congressman Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri is co-sponsor of a bill to provide the 1.2 billion necessary to prevent the furloughs. He says the layoffs would affect more than a thousand jobs in his Kansas City-based district, where USCIS has an office.
EMANUEL CLEAVER: On this particular issue, the pain is not going to be just to the families for losing jobs but to many immigrants who've been standing in line, waiting to possibly get to become a - U.S. citizens.
NAYLOR: And Cleaver says he believes the funding shortfall was engineered by the Trump administration as part of its long-range immigration goals.
CLEAVER: I am absolutely of the opinion that this is being done to further halt immigration.
NAYLOR: Congress returns to Washington next week, and Cleaver is hopeful lawmakers will approve the spending plan and avoid the furloughs. Meanwhile, another federal agency, also a part of the Department of Homeland Security, is offering voluntary early retirements to some of its employees. The Transportation Security Administration, the TSA, cites the drop in demand for air travel because of the pandemic. Last month, the agency said passenger volume was down by 84% from year-ago levels. Heydrich Thomas is a TSA employee at JFK Airport and is president of the union council that represents Transportation Security officers.
HEYDRICH THOMAS: At this time, the airlines not booking full flights. And they might get a third of a flight. And they ain't getting a full flight (ph).
NAYLOR: Thomas says he thinks few employees will take advantage of the early retirement offer. That's because, he says, the TSA is offering no incentives to take early retirement. He likens it to fishing without any bait.
THOMAS: They see - throw the bait out and see who's going to jump on the hook. I don't think they're going to get too many fish throwing an empty hook out like that (ph).
NAYLOR: The TSA says if it does reduce its staff now, it will ramp up hiring again when air travel returns to normal.
Brian Naylor, NPR News
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