Tens of thousands of Transportation Security Administration (TSA) officers across the United States, including in Maine, are working without pay. With no end to the partial government shutdown in sight, some travelers passing through the Portland International Jetport are now stepping up to help TSA employees.
We all know the types of things that passengers typically toss into plastic bins in airport security lines: computers, phones, shoes, car keys. But lately, at the Portland Jetport, other items have been showing up in those bins.
"We're getting a lot of Hannaford gift cards."
William Reiley is a transportation security officer. He's also the vice president of the local union of the American Federation of Government Employees. He says the gift card donations started coming in about a week ago. There are restrictions about what TSA officers can accept: no cash, no gift cards for individuals above $20, and no gift cards for the group that exceed $50. With the gift cards they can accept, Reiley says, managers are buying lunch and grocery supplies for employees, setting up a makeshift food pantry in the office.
"There’s macaroni and cheese, there's pasta, there's bottles of tomato sauce, there's canned vegetables and fruit, mainly non-perishable items," says Reiley.
There's an increasing need for these basics, Reiley says, because this Friday will mark one month that TSA officers have gone without paychecks.
"I understand, you know, the border, the wall,” he says. “I mean I understand all that's extremely important. But what about your citizens? I mean, don’t we deserve pay?”
Reiley says worker morale is better than he would have expected at this point, and he chalks it up to the kindness of travelers, like Bristol Ivy of Portland. Before catching a flight to California on Thursday, she picked up a few gift cards to hand out to TSA workers.
"I got them a Hannafords gift card because I figured that would be the most broad-ranging, kind of cover all the bases," Ivy says.
Ivy says she travels frequently for work, so TSA employees are on her mind.
"I just really appreciate these guys are still here working and doing kind of a thankless job in the best of circumstances, and this is not the best of circumstances. So, it’s the least I could do," she says.
The union that represents federal employees has filed a lawsuit against the federal government seeking payment of affected workers. Unions that represent air traffic controllers, pilots and flight attendants, meanwhile, issued a warning Wednesday about growing safety concerns due to low staffing and unpaid employees having to work overtime to maintain operations.
The partial government shutdown's effect on safety was on the mind of Mike Sieracki as he traveled from Portland to Washington D.C. on Thursday.
"I do have a feeling that because of the stalemate that the solution will only come after a disaster," Sieracki says.
Sieracki himself is a furloughed employee who works for the National Science Foundation. As he waits to be called back to work, he says the situation has become frustrating and depressing.
Originally published Jan. 24, 2016 at 4:16 p.m. ET.