Today marks the 21st day of the partial U.S. government shutdown and the day that roughly 800,000 government employees will miss their first paycheck.
Many of these employees are furloughed, but thousands of others are classified as essential personnel—such as Transportation Security Administration employees, border patrol agents, and FBI agents—who must continue to report to work without pay.
While this presents financial difficulties for these employees, it could also create a national security issue, according to a letter from the FBI agents’ union sent to members of Congress.
“FBI Special Agents are subject to high security standards that include rigorous and routine financial background checks to ensure that agents are financially stable and responsible,” the union wrote. “Missing payments on debts could create delays in securing or renewing security clearances, and could even disqualify agents from continuing to serve in some cases.”
The letter also explained that while the FBI has been able to shift funds around to continue operations, it is doing so with limited resources and the situation is not sustainable. It also poses recruitment and retention challenges for the Bureau.
“Special Agents are skilled professionals who have a variety of employment options in the private sector,” the union explained. “The ongoing financial insecurity caused by the failure to fund the FBI could lead some FBI Agents to consider career options that provide stability for their families.”
Obtaining a security clearance is a notoriously lengthy process that the U.S. government has been working to address. In a previous article, Security Management spoke with Charles Phalen—director of the National Background Investigation Bureau—about how it was addressing the backlog of individuals waiting for a security clearance.
“There is this backlog of background investigations that everybody refers to—it’s significant,” Phalen said. “That number is interesting, but it’s not the real number. The real number is how long does it take us to turn out an investigation? If we had a backlog of 5 billion cases, nobody would care as long as we were turning out the investigations on a timely basis. We aren’t, so we have an immediate problem to deal with which is to reduce the time it takes to get somebody a national security clearance.”
The FBI is not alone in fears that agents may decide to leave the Bureau due to the shutdown. Many TSA officers began calling in sick to work this week, instead of reporting to work for no pay, and others have quit, said Hydrick Thomas—head of the TSA Council on the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)—in a press release on AFGE’s website.
“Every day, I’m getting calls from my members about their extreme financial hardships and need for a paycheck,” Thomas said. “Some of them have already quit and many are considering quitting the federal workforce because of this shutdown.”
If numerous TSA officers quit, it could cause a transportation security risk.
“The loss of officers, while we’re already shorthanded, will create a massive security risk for American travelers since we don’t have enough trainees in the pipeline or the ability to process new hires,” Thomas explained. “Our [officers] already do an amazing job without the proper staffing levels, but if this keeps up there are problems that will arise—least of which would be increased wait times for travelers.”