Blue Flu at TSA and Elsewhere in DHS?

By Dan Cadman on January 17, 2019

Media reports have dribbled out over the course of this partial shutdown, which affects Department of Homeland Security (DHS) workers, that Transportation Security Administration (TSA) employees are failing to show up in significant numbers as they call in sick. The result is apparently so substantial as to have required some airports to shut down access points at certain terminals for lack of staff.

Even though they aren't getting paid because of the shutdown, TSA workers manning barriers into the secured areas of ports, like many other employees at DHS, are deemed "essential" and thus have to go into work minus that pay. I know what that's like — it happened to me when I worked within the Investigations Division at the now-defunct Immigration and Naturalization Service. None of us liked it, but recognized that there was an obligation to the public beyond our personal circumstances.

In the federal government, as with many state and local government agencies where public safety functions are concerned, striking is illegal. Sometimes at the local level, for instance when negotiatiions over pay and working conditions break down, cops do "sick-outs" that have over the years come to be called "blue flu". This is their way of getting around the strike prohibition. That appears to be what is going on at TSA. I don't think much of it; in fact it's contemptible.

Border Patrol agents and field inspectors who staff the U.S. ports of entry — all employees of Customs and Border Protection (CBP), another DHS agency — are also deemed essential and have to work without pay for now, although both Congress and the president have committed themselves to providing back pay. Agents at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are also essential and working without pay. If officers and agents at CBP or ICE have engaged in blue flu tactics, I haven't heard about it, but I suppose it's possible.

What I do know is this: DHS Secretary Nielsen should issue an all-hands statement making clear that these employees who have taken on responsible jobs to serve and protect the public must show up for work. Frankly, this should have been made clear from the start of the situation. Perhaps it was. Those who abuse sick leave simply to express their displeasure over the stalemate — unacceptable though it is on so many levels — should be disciplined.

When President Ronald Reagan was confronted with a recalcitrant group of air traffic controllers (who at least were honest enough to call what they were doing by its name — a strike), he ordered them fired.

There can be no excuse for letting the American public down; what's happening is not their fault. DHS employees owe them their presence at work.