TSA Screeners' Union Wants More Guidance On Avoiding Coronavirus Three screeners at the San Jose, Calif., airport tested positive, and others may have been exposed. "All we've been told is 'Wash your hands. Don't touch your face,' " a union official said.
NPR logo

TSA Screeners' Union Wants More Guidance On Avoiding Coronavirus

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/815734056/815778441" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
TSA Screeners' Union Wants More Guidance On Avoiding Coronavirus

TSA Screeners' Union Wants More Guidance On Avoiding Coronavirus

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/815734056/815778441" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And among all those shutdowns Rob just mentioned, also reeling from the coronavirus, the travel industry. This week, three security screeners at the airport in San Jose, Calif., tested positive for the virus, and others may have been exposed. That's fueling questions about how the TSA is protecting its employees and the public. From member station KUER in Salt Lake City, Andrew Becker has more.

ANDREW BECKER, BYLINE: Union officials who represent the 45,000 or so screeners nationwide who come into contact with the public more than any other federal agency say they haven't been told much about how to protect themselves.

JOE SHUKER: Our officers are really concerned about it, and we really don't know of a plan. All we've been told is, wash your hands, don't touch your face.

BECKER: That's Joe Shuker, local president of the TSA union in Philadelphia. The agency is already in the middle of a hiring and overtime freeze because of a funding gap. Shuker says screeners are facing a shortage of protective gloves, hand sanitizers and even cleaning supplies.

SHUKER: It's discouraging, it really is, to know that an agency that's developed to protect the American people isn't funded to protect them, right?

BECKER: On top of that, the TSA recently stopped reimbursing more than 100 airports for security checkpoint cleaning. That's according to industry executives speaking on background. TSA requested that $21 million in reimbursement funding be cut, and Congress approved it last year. Shuker says his airport in Philadelphia is one of them, but there wasn't much communication about that, except...

SHUKER: We didn't have the money to pay cleaners to come up and clean.

BECKER: Industry executives say some of the nation's largest airports are seeing cleaning reimbursements reduced due to the budget cut. And that's putting an extra burden on airports at a time that's already challenging. Miami International Airport spokesman Greg Chin said in a statement that there's been no interruption in cleaning there, but TSA is no longer providing funding to cover its costs. TSA declined an interview request and did not respond to written questions.

Democrats in Congress are asking for details on what the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security are doing to protect their workers and the public. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell sent a letter to the Homeland Security secretary, and at a House subcommittee hearing with TSA administrator David Pekoske this week, California Congressman Lou Correa said he's concerned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LOU CORREA: I just want to reassure the public that we're on top of this and that we're doing what we need to do to protect the workers as well as the public.

DAVID PEKOSKE: Yes, sir. And ensuring the safety of my workforce is my top priority.

BECKER: But Pekoske rejected a request earlier this week by the union to wear respirator masks, telling it the agency is following CDC guidelines, according to emails provided to NPR. Instead, screeners are allowed to wear surgical masks even though they may not be as effective. On a recent afternoon at the Salt Lake airport, one screener was wearing a surgical mask, and he was handling baggage. Caroline Schier has just dropped off her black ski bag for screening after a long-planned vacation. The 45-year-old family physician from Portland, Ore., says at first, she thought worries over the coronavirus were overblown. But that soon changed.

CAROLINE SCHIER: I'm taking precautions, assuming that anyone could be infected.

BECKER: She says she avoids touching her face and frequently washes her hands - the same advice TSA screeners are told to follow.

For NPR News, I'm Andrew Becker in Salt Lake City.

Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.