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The partial shutdown of the federal government is starting to affect air travel as a growing number of security agents are refusing to work for no pay.
So far, however, the impact on air travelers has been relatively limited with no significant disruptions. But airport workers and travelers are concerned that conditions will worsen if the impasse continues, throwing travel into turmoil.
At least one airport, Miami International Airport, will start closing one terminal early each day, starting on Saturday, because of a shortage of screeners employed by the Transportation Security Administration, said Greg Chin, an airport spokesman.
Mr. Chin said agents had been calling in sick at double the normal rate this week, leaving their supervisors worried that they will not have enough agents to operate all of the airport’s 11 security checkpoints.
The nation’s 51,000 airport security agents are among the federal employees who have been ordered to work through the partial shutdown, which began on Dec. 22.
On Friday, they missed their first paycheck since it started, a lapse that their union leaders feared would cause more of them to stop showing up for work or even to quit their jobs.
Hydrick Thomas, president of the T.S.A. Council of the American Federation of Government Employees, said this week that “extreme financial hardship” had driven some of his members to resign and many others to consider doing so.
The agents earn about $35,000 a year, on average, union officials said. “We have people that work from paycheck to paycheck and there’s quite a few of them,” said Vincent R. Castellano, national vice president for the union’s second district, which encompasses the Northeast.
Near Raleigh-Durham International Airport in North Carolina, a church-sponsored food pantry has been delivering food to T.S.A. workers, said Jessica Whichard, a spokeswoman for the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina. Ms. Whichard said the White Oak Foundation had requested more food than usual from the food bank so that it could distribute some of it to the airport workers.
The workers, many of them still in their T.S.A. uniforms after finishing their shifts, showed up to collect food at a makeshift pantry the foundation set up in a parking lot near the airport, said Kathleen Lee, director of services for the foundation. She said the foundation would continue offering food to federal employees twice a week at the White Oak Missionary Baptist Church in Cary, N.C., for “as long as necessary.”
Ms. Lee said the workers were not sheepish about accepting the handouts. She said that one of them told her, “If I’m getting free groceries then I can pay my light bill.”
Despite the shutdown and the hardships it is causing security agents, federal officials said that passengers had not faced any major problems navigating security checkpoints.
Following the holiday rush, the air travel industry is entering a period where the number of people flying is generally lower than during other parts of the year.
But if the shutdown persists, the worry among industry officials is that agents will face pressure to find paying jobs elsewhere, leading to staffing shortages.
Security officers at airports around the country were already expressing increasing anxiety about their financial plight.
“It is getting harder to come every day and know that you’re not getting paid, but it’s my job, and I knew when I started this job that this was potentially going to happen,” said a 37-year-old woman who is a screener at Los Angeles International Airport. “So I’m going to come in, but if there is any other reason that I have to call out, I’m not going to hesitate to do it.”
Like many other screeners interviewed for this article, she declined to be identified because she said she had been warned against talking to journalists.
“It’s difficult to budget things like food, or knowing which bills to pay, when you simply don’t know when you’ll have money again,” said a 29-year-old man who works for the T.S.A. at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago.
He said that he had contacted his banks, mortgage company and other creditors but none of them had a program to help in his situation. The Department of Homeland Security distributed letters for its employees to show to landlords, explaining that they “are unlikely to be able to pay for their housing for the foreseeable future,” but they have been of little assistance, he said.
So he was resigned to having to run up the balances on his credit cards and pay interest on the debt, he said, adding that in the meantime, he was looking around the house for things that he could sell quickly on eBay.
At O’Hare, he said, “Our policies and screening procedures aren’t being done any less thorough, but it’s likely they may take longer the more officers we become short.”
Federal officials have downplayed the effects of the partial shutdown on travelers. Michael Bilello, a spokesman for the T.S.A., has been using Twitter to report how long it is taking to get through security checkpoints. On Friday morning, he said that the maximum wait time at Newark Liberty International on Thursday was 36 minutes but at Boston Logan International it was just 7 minutes.
David P. Pekoske, the administrator of the T.S.A., said in a statement on Thursday: “I am connected to the field & fully understand the strain our employees & their families are experiencing. Yet, due to the commitment & resolve of the TSA work force, the traveling public has confidently traveled securely around the clock as high-level of travel volume indicate.”
No other major airports have announced plans to take the sort of action that Miami International has planned. Mr. Chin said that the airport would close Concourse G at 1 p.m. on Saturday through Monday and divert the flights that would normally leave from there to another concourse. He described that shift as a precaution “just in case the number of call-outs increases.”
A spokesman for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the three major airports that serve New York City, said those airports had continued to operate normally during the shutdown.
One transportation security officer on a meal break in Terminal 2 at Kennedy International Airport this week said that his co-workers were still showing up to work and quietly enduring the uncertainty.
“It’s like you feel that silent tension that’s going to build up later on,” said the officer, a two-year veteran who lives in Queens and takes care of his parents. He said he could manage without a paycheck for now, but a shutdown lasting months or longer would be another matter.
“If it continues for a year, then the question is can you survive?” he said. Eventually, he suggested, he and his co-workers might start having to choose between food and shelter — and probably would cut back on food first.
“Can I do the job without nutrition? Somebody has to answer that,” he said. “If 52,000 people have to work without nourishment, can the job get done?”
He said health care was another worry because a lot of the agents take prescription medications. “How long can we go forward when it actually affects your fundamental needs?” he said.
For now the plan was to keep showing up. “I’m not taking my vacation next week,” he said. “I have to come, which I will, because I’m under oath, so I’m going to do that.”