Donated food and supplies from TSA workers for airport workers who are on reduced hours and/or paychecks, April 30, 2020.
The steep decline in air travel caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has triggered layoffs, furloughs and shortened work hours for airport employees and contract workers ranging from wheelchair attendants and baggage handlers to janitorial crews and concessions staff.
In a growing number of cities their co-workers from the Transportation Security Administration, who continue to receive paychecks, are stepping up to help, by hosting temporary food pantries in airports around the nation, providing free lunches and dinners to their struggling colleagues or donating their time to make masks and other essential items for communities in need.
Unite Here, a union representing hospitality workers, estimates that 42,000 of its members in the airport industry are currently out of work. Most of those lost jobs are in airport concessions and airline catering, where wages range from $9 to $16 an hour.
“These are just United Here members,” said spokeswoman Meghan Cohorst, “If you take all airport workers nationwide the numbers are much higher.”
The Airport Restaurant and Retail Association (ARRA) estimates 120,000 to 125,000 airport employees are currently out of work.
Some of those workers may eventually get called back. But for now, their incomes are disrupted, and many could use some help.
Food pantries provide some relief
As a thank-you for the support they received while working without paychecks during the 2018/2019 partial government shutdown, TSA officers at Denver International Airport on April 30 hosted a food pantry in support of airport and air carrier colleagues working with reduced hours or partial paychecks.
“Our team rallied to collect thousands of non-perishable items for the pantry,” said Larry Nau, TSA Federal Security Director for Colorado, “133 airport employees shopped the pantry and took home items for a total of 538 family members fed.”
On April 24, Transportation Security Administration employees at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport (DCA) opened a free food and toiletries pantry to assist airport employees laid off or working with reduced hours or paychecks.
The pantry is open a few hours each weekday in space provided by the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. TSA officers are donating cash, products and gift cards to keep the pantry stocked with items such as cereal, evaporated milk, soup, pasta, toothpaste, soap, laundry detergent, feminine products, diapers and deodorant.
And in early April, TSA employees at Dulles International Airport (IAD) opened a free pantry for affected airport community members that is stocked with everything from donated dried and canned goods and toiletries to toys for employees who have kids at home. The airport is providing the space, shelving and cleaning services for the pantry, which is open eight hours each day.
“The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority and vendors at the airport purchased meals for TSA officers during [the government shutdown.] Now we’ve seen hundreds of layoffs taking place in the airport community and we figured we would do what we could to give back and help,” said Eric Chin, TSA’s Assistant Federal Security Director for Screening at Dulles.
TSA officers have also set up a food pantry at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG).
Pizza and boxed lunch
Twice in early April, TSA officers at Rhode Island’s T.F. Green Airport (PVD) chipped in to buy and deliver pizza dinners for fellow airport workers, including airline employees, wheelchair attendants and housekeeping staff.
“Providence is a small airport and the employees who work here are like family,” Christopher Primiano, TSA stakeholder liaison at PVD Airport, told CNBC, “We know this could go on for some time so we’re looking into what else we can do, from donations and food drives to bake sales. We want to help and give back as much as we can.”
Giving back is also on the minds of TSA workers around the country who remember how airport communities rallied to provide food, diapers, gift cards, supplies and services to TSA officers who were expected to work without paychecks during the partial government shutdown in 2019.
“So when this pandemic started affecting our airport family, we decided that this was our unique opportunity to be able to repay all of their kindness and take care of those in need,” said Francesca Baker, a TSA program specialist at Oregon’s Portland International Airport (PDX).
On April 10, TSA employees at PDX bought pre-made lunches for around 300 airport employees. They did it again on April 21, partnering with local employees from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to donate lunch and supplies to an equal number of airport workers.
As part of its “TSA Gives Back” program, early last month TSA officers at Green Bay-Austin Straubel International Airport (GRB) in Wisconsin chipped in to buy and deliver pizza, dessert and balloons to airline and car rental employees at the airport who are experiencing shrinking paychecks.
And, at McGhee Tyson Airport (TYS) in Knoxville, Tennessee, TSOs are collecting donations and arranged for Second Harvest, the community food bank, to supply food boxes to about 300 airport employees.
Helping the homeless
TSA employees are screening record low numbers of passengers and crew members at airports around the country, so at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR) TSA officers are finding creative and helpful way to use their break time and downtime between screening duties.
Following instructions from an online video, TSA officers at EWR recently made 200 face masks out of 100 pairs of brand-new socks purchased with funds donated by TSA employees. Each sock-mask was placed in a separate plastic zippered bag along with an instruction card and all 200 masks were delivered to two area homeless shelters.
“It was a game-changer in terms of our spirits at the checkpoint,” said Nicole Parisi,” a TSA manager at EWR who helped make the masks, “It gave us extra purpose” beyond our usual security duties,” she said in a TSA statement.
TSOs at Newark Liberty Airport have also used their downtime at the checkpoints to make home-made get-well cards and write notes of support for health care workers and COVID-19 patients in isolation at nearby medical center.