Vaccine mandate deadline raises concerns of TSA understaffing heading into holiday travel

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The deadline for federal workers, including Transportation and Security Administration agents, to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is Monday, prompting concerns of understaffing at airports across the nation as millions plan to travel for Thanksgiving and through the holiday season.

President Biden’s executive order goes into effect Monday, but as of last week, an estimated 40% of TSA agents at airports had not been vaccinated against COVID-19, with the American Federation of Government Employees warning of potential staff shortages during the holidays.

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“They are not going to be ready for Christmas if they get rid of everybody who chooses not to get vaccinated,” Hydrick Thomas, the president of the American Federation of Government Employees’ division representing airline security officers, told Bloomberg News last week.

“If they don’t accommodate employees during these holidays coming upon us, we are going to have an issue with the screening process,” Thomas said.

Earlier this month, top Republicans on committees with oversight of the TSA in both chambers of Congress, Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y., raised concerns about the potential for staffing challenges that could disrupt the transportation sector due to the mandate, also citing the approximately 40% of TSA workers who were unvaccinated as of early November.

“Based on the current percentage of vaccination amongst the TSA workforce, we are concerned about the potential disruptions significant non-compliance with the President’s EO could have on the agency’s operations,” Wicker and Katko wrote to TSA Administrator David Pekoske in a joint letter, requesting information on any “contingency plans” the TSA has to handle the potential “sizable reduction in its workforce” resulting from the mandate.

Pekoske, however, said the agency is ready to handle the surge in holiday travelers regardless of the vaccine mandate.

“Implementation of the mandate will make travel safer and healthier for everyone,” Pekoske said. “So, we see quite a significant increase in the number of our officers that are vaccinated, and I’m very confident that there will be no impact for Thanksgiving.”

“We are prepared,” Pekoske told ABC’s “Good Morning America,” but warned that travelers should still expect long wait times to pass through security at airports across the country due to the surge in holiday travelers.

The American Automobile Association (AAA) predicts that more than 53.4 million people will travel this year, in what will be the highest single-year increase since 2005.

Travel for the holiday, AAA noted, is up 13% from 2020, bringing volumes within 5% of pre-pandemic levels.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said it expects to screen about 20 million passengers during the Thanksgiving holiday.

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The busiest days are typically the Tuesday and Wednesday prior to Thanksgiving and the Sunday afterward. 

While travel volume this year is not expected to reach pre-pandemic levels when nearly 2.9 million individuals were screened at TSA security checkpoints nationwide, the agency said it is expected to be notably higher in the time leading up to Thanksgiving.

“We anticipate that travel may be very close to pre-pandemic levels this holiday, and we are staffed and prepared for the holiday travelers. We have deployed technologies that enhance detection capabilities and reduce physical contact, and it’s equally important that passengers are prepared with travel tips for the most efficient checkpoint experience,” Pekoske said. “With overall vaccination rates improving nationwide and greater confidence in healthy travel, there will be more people traveling so plan ahead, remain vigilant and practice kindness.”

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According to the TSA website, there are currently 273 TSA employees with active COVID-19 infections. Those employees are “staying home to keep the traveling public safe.”

The TSA also said that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the agency cumulatively had 11,171 federal employees test positive for COVID-19—10,898 of those employees recovered, but 32 “unfortunately died after contracting the virus.” TSA also said that two screening contractors have also passed away after COVID infections.

Fox News’ Julia Musto and The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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