This post-Christmas Sunday, over 1.28 million people flew out of U.S. airports. It was the highest single-day airport volume since the pandemic began, beating out the more than 1.19 million passengers on December 23 and the 1.17 million-plus people who flew on November 29, the Sunday following Thanksgiving.
While we wait and see how much the busy holiday travel season will affect COVID-19’s worsening spread throughout the Houston area, it’s undeniable that having so many more people moving about in public has put frontline travel industry workers at even greater risk of getting sick with and potentially spreading the coronavirus.
Curiously, it turns out one of those groups of workers — airport security staff — aren’t being checked out for high temperatures or other coronavirus symptoms before they come to work each day despite being in close quarters with travelers. There are also no requirements for them to go through any sort of regular testing for COVID-19.
According to Patricia Mancha, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration’s media representative for Texas and the southwest United States, TSA employees at George Bush Intercontinental Airport or William P. Hobby Airport aren’t required to undergo any sort of mandatory temperature checks or COVID-19 symptom screenings before reporting to work any given day. That includes frontline TSA security screeners, who like their fellow employees aren’t required to be tested for coronavirus.
“Neither airport conducts health screenings or temp checks of staff who work. They go by the honor system and provide ample leave opportunities for employees who either are sick or need to quarantine,“ Mancha said.
The lack of a system to catch TSA COVID-19 cases preemptively isn’t just some Houstonian quirk — Lisa Farbstein, TSA spokeswoman for the northeast, confirmed to the Houston Press that while TSA “encourages the workforce to take their temperature” before heading in to work, the agency does not require temperature checks, symptom screens or regular coronavirus testing for its employees across the country.
“TSA does not require its employees (including those at LGA and JFK) to get COVID-19 tested, nor are they required to have their temperature taken or complete a health survey when reporting to work,” Farbstein said in a written response to a question about how New York City’s main airports are handling TSA worker coronavirus screenings.
Even during the pandemic travel doldrums, TSA screeners have to get up close and personal with hundreds of fliers each day who have been God-knows-where before waltzing through a security checkpoint. And let’s face it — many of these travelers probably aren’t being especially diligent about taking measures to protect themselves from the deadly virus given their shared decision to hop on an airplane while a deadly airborne virus is still raging across the globe.
Both Farbstein and Mancha stressed repeatedly that TSA has provided its staff with ample personal protective equipment like face masks, plastic face shields and nitrile gloves. But despite those precautions, plenty of TSA employees at Houston’s two major airports have come down with COVID-19 in the past several months.
At George Bush Airport, 95 TSA employees have reported testing positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic, 85 of whom were TSA security screening officers. Down south at Hobby Airport, 25 TSA workers have tested positive for the coronavirus, including 22 security screeners. Luckily, Bush only ranks 13th in the country for positive TSA worker cases, while Hobby is 40th. Los Angeles International and Miami International airports are one and two on that list, with 284 and 228 confirmed cases within TSA ranks, respectively.
Of course, it’s impossible to know whether or not these workers got sick on the job or while they were off-duty. But that said, it’s still surprising that TSA doesn’t have any sort of health screening process for its staff, which likely would have prevented at least some of these workers from coming in to work while contagious with COVID-19 but still asymptomatic.
Despite the risks inherent in any public-facing job these days, Mancha said that plenty of people still want to work for TSA. She said the agency isn’t having any significant staffing issues arising from either positive COVID-19 cases, employees isolating after being exposed to the virus or from workers leaving the profession out of fear.
“Fortunately, we do have a large number of people who are interested in joining the workforce. I don’t know of any great number of attrition of staff at this point, and I’ve not heard that from my colleagues either,” Mancha said.
As to how many TSA agents have been hired to work at either Bush or Hobby Airport during the pandemic (or have left their jobs in that same timeframe), Mancha said that’s something she wouldn’t be able to share publicly.
“I was able to confirm that staffing information is considered law enforcement sensitive,” she wrote in a follow-up message, “therefore I am not at liberty to share at this point.”
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