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Some Travelers Expressing Gratitude For TSA Workers Amid Shutdown

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

It's day 25 of the partial government shutdown, and the number of Transportation Security Administration employees calling in sick continues to grow. They are among the federal employees being told to work without pay right now. With so many off-the-clock lines at security checkpoints in some airports have gotten longer, plenty of travelers are getting frustrated. For some, that feeling is mixed with gratitude, as NPR's David Schaper reports.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Across the country, about 7 1/2 percent of TSA workers have been calling in sick in recent days. That's more than double the usual number. The TSA won't provide a breakdown, but clearly, the problem is worse at some airports than others. Elise Durham is a spokeswoman for Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson Airport.

ELISE DURHAM: Given the federal shutdown, we are beginning to feel a little bit of an impact as it pertains to having some TSA workers who have not reported to work.

SCHAPER: Some travelers had to wait in line almost 90 minutes at one point yesterday, and Durham recommends arriving at the world's busiest airport three hours before your flight. Houston, Washington Dulles, Miami and Dallas/Fort Worth are among the other airports that have had to close security lanes and checkpoints because of a shortage of screeners. TSA employees are among the lowest paid federal workers, earning an average of about $17 to $20 an hour. And many are struggling to make ends meet after missing their first paycheck of the year. So across the country, people are lending a helping hand.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Hi, how are we doing today?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: How are you?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Pretty good.

SCHAPER: At St. Mary's Food Bank in Phoenix, TSA workers wearing their familiar blue shirts and badges are waiting in line to be handed grocery bags full of bread, cereal, peanut butter and other staples.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And then you can grab one of these, and if you would like some milk and eggs, step right here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK, thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: OK. No problem. How are you doing today? Are you going home or are you going to the shelter?

SCHAPER: Food banks everywhere are helping out unpaid government workers, and GoFundMe pages and other fundraising efforts are also underway. Some airline passengers offer cash tips to TSA officers, but they can't accept gifts, so instead, they're hearing a lot of this.

RAY ORTIZ: I just want to thank everyone that is currently working without a paycheck.

SCHAPER: On a recent trip through Chicago's O'Hare Airport, Ray Ortiz of New York was one of many travelers stopping to thank TSA screeners. Another is Bob Clemens from Naperville, Ill.

BOB CLEMENS: I feel terrible for them. I personally think the shutdown is awful all around. And I don't know that I could be as gracious and have the same grace that they do to show up for work and not get paid.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: A lot of people have been showing more support for what we're going through.

SCHAPER: This TSA officer, who we're not naming because he's not authorized to speak to the media, says he appreciates all the thank you's he's hearing at his checkpoint.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I mean, it makes it easier to do what we have to do. You know, there's nobody, you know, giving you complaints about you having to go through their bag. It just makes it easier so we can, you know, get you to your plane.

SCHAPER: He says it beats the often angry looks and grumbles they're familiar with when conducting bag searches and pat downs. But when asked if he'd rather have a paycheck than those warm expressions of gratitude, he just smiled, nodded his head and walked back to his post. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.