Unhappy workers, but no shutdown meltdown at O'Hare

  • An unpaid TSA agent helps a traveler at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago last week.

      An unpaid TSA agent helps a traveler at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago last week. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

  • U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, from left, TSA worker Janis Casey and FAA worker James Patinka speak about the prolonged government shutdown at a roundtable event Friday in Chicago.

      U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, from left, TSA worker Janis Casey and FAA worker James Patinka speak about the prolonged government shutdown at a roundtable event Friday in Chicago. Marni Pyke | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 1/21/2019 1:03 PM

There was a direct connection between Saturday's snowstorm and delays at O'Hare International Airport.

But measuring the direct impact of a prolonged partial government shutdown that's forcing air traffic controllers, FAA inspectors and TSA agents to work without pay? That's problematic at the nation's second-busiest airport, where it's business as usual.

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Unlike Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, where passengers have experienced excruciating two-hour waits at TSA checkpoints, O'Hare screening is moving along smoothly so far.

That doesn't mean there's no angst for federal workers, however.

"We're doing what we do every day and that's being professional," said veteran controller Toby Hauck, who works at Chicago Center, the long-distance flight center in Aurora.

"But it's a lot extra on controllers' minds ... when you're talking to airplanes and trying to decide if you should pay your mortgage or have surgery," he said, referring to the choice he says is facing one colleague.

The shutdown started Dec. 22, and this week marks the second missed pay period. Local air traffic controllers who've spent their savings now are driving Uber, waitressing or bartending on the side, Hauck said Friday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He and his wife, a nurse, worry how they'll make ends meet when his 2-year-old granddaughter comes to stay. Hauck's son and daughter-in-law are in the Army and will be deployed to Europe soon.

Foremost on the couple's mind is how to afford child care when they're at work. "We love her to death," said Hauck, a National Air Traffic Controllers Association representative. But "that's a big (financial) responsibility when you don't have a paycheck coming in."

It's the same story for Transportation Security Administration officers, O'Hare worker and American Federation of Government Employees official Janis Casey said Friday at a news conference with eight members of the U.S. House and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.

TSA officers are working second jobs and calling in sick at a higher rate than before, Casey said.

But wait times at security lines are averaging 15 minutes or less at O'Hare, Chicago Aviation Department spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said Friday.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The TSA reported that of 1.6 million passengers screened nationwide Saturday, 99.9 percent waited less than 30 minutes and 94 percent waited less than 15 minutes.

TSA officers calling in sick Saturday reached a high of 8 percent compared to 3 percent the same day in 2018.

If the shutdown persists, U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi predicts, security delays will hit O'Hare hard.

"It's just a matter of time before TSA agents either, because they haven't been paid for so long, start looking for other work and just leave the workforce or call in sick and take in other jobs on the side," the Schaumburg Democrat said.

Besides the front-line workers, FAA technicians are working without pay while 2,200 FAA inspectors are being brought back to work after furloughs.

Along with aircraft inspections, inspectors also recertify pilots, sign off on new aircraft and perform other duties, Arlington Heights pilot Dennis Tajer said. Now, "we're starting to see a backlog."

"Those little checks and balances the system has are either not happening or the folks that are doing it are not being compensated. My concern is that they're not 100 percent focused. I count on them, and so does every passenger on my airplane," said Tajer, an American Airlines captain and a spokesman for the Allied Pilots Association union.

As for the difference between O'Hare and Hartsfield-Jackson, "the morale of TSA workers varies widely between cities," DePaul University aviation expert Joseph Schwieterman said.

"In Atlanta, morale problems have resulted in far more no-shows than in Chicago. We can be thankful that we've been mostly spared the pain. The booming economy in the South makes it easy for most TSA workers in that region to find other jobs. The shutdown provides the impetus for many workers to say "goodbye" to their poorly paid and stressful jobs," said Schwieterman, a DePaul professor.

Your voice

A November snowstorm obscured LED traffic signals across the region because the new technology doesn't create as much heat as old-school incandescents. Reader Angelo Polvere of Inverness has this temporary fix. "Why not change only the really critical red light lamp bulbs back to incandescent ones until a permanent solution is determined by IDOT?" he wrote. "Thus, red lights will be snow free requiring a complete stop. All snow obstructed lights would appear to be off during green and yellow light cycles requiring a complete stop before go, and hopefully accidents will be mitigated. This could be effected at minimal labor expense in minutes with negligible increase in electric power costs."

For the record

A federal appeals court Jan. 8 upheld the dismissal of a discrimination lawsuit against Metra police by 12 current and former officers. The officers, who are all black, said they were falsely blamed for minor infractions and forced to do tasks their white peers were exempted from. Metra denied discriminatory behavior and said the officers were "justifiably disciplined for dishonesty or negligence." An attorney for the officers said her clients were disappointed by the decision.

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The Chicago Auto Show runs Feb. 9 to 18 at McCormick Place.

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