TSA officers need more protection amid coronavirus outbreak, union says

(NEW YORK) — As the aviation industry struggles to offset the economic impact of the novel coronavirus, those representing employees on the frontline believe not enough is being done to protect their health.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has confirmed that eight of their officers have tested positive for COVID-19. This number has doubled within the last four days as the virus continues to spread in the U.S. and more testing becomes available.

According to TSA, the employees that could have come in contact with the transportation security officers over the past 14 days have been quarantined.

“They are patriotic employees that just want to do their job and work safe,” Everett Kelley, the national president of the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE), told ABC News on Monday.

AFGE represents almost 50,000 TSA officers nationwide.

“I think that it is important that the American public understand what these TSOs are facing right now,” Kelley said. “They are afraid. No one knows or understands the extent of this virus so everyone is a little shaken by it.”

Last Tuesday, the union asked TSA Administrator David Pekoske for N95 masks to be provided to the frontline workforce. The union said TSA denied the request.

Currently the agency is allowing frontline personnel to wear surgical masks only “if they choose to do so.”

“TSA is not even providing any form of mask for the TSO,” Kelley told ABC News. “I also think that the N95 mask would be a lot safer than what they have.”

In response, TSA said they follow guidance from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, related to personnel protection. At this time, TSA said neither the CDC nor OSHA has recommended N95 respirators or masks for their personnel.

The agency said amid the COVID-19 outbreak, they are encouraging employees to regularly was their hands and cover their coughs. They also said they’ve always instructed the most at-risk personnel to wear gloves when screening a person or their property.

Kelley thinks the union could work more closely with officials to address the safety of its workers if the administration drew back on some executive orders.

“I think that it’s just time that we lay politics aside and think about America in general,” Kelley said. “Think about the safety of all Americans without the political agendas. I think that’s where we need to go as a nation.”

Two weeks ago during a budget hearing, Pekoske told lawmakers that, if necessary, the agency will have contingency plans in place — especially if they see a lot of officers call out sick. He said at the time that they had the proper resources and that there hadn’t been a major impact to TSA’s screening operations.

Kelley said the union has been asking since January to develop a task force to address the novel coronavirus, comprised of individuals from the administration, management and the union.

“I don’t think that there is a plan in place, at least from the TSA administration perspective,” Kelley said Monday. “We have no plan and we need one.”

ABC News reached out to the agency about the potential contingency plans, and the agency did not immediately respond to the request.

Kelley said there hasn’t been any talks of layoffs for TSA officers yet.

On Sunday, United Airlines was the first U.S. carrier to announce they are considering furloughs, across the board pay cuts and reducing staffing minimums.

Abroad, airlines like Norwegian Air and Scandinavian Air have temporarily laid off 90% of their employees.

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