The government is open again — at least for three weeks — but many of the federal employees who were required to work without pay, including TSA agents, are still feeling the effects of the shutdown as they await paychecks.
In an effort to assist TSA workers at the Missoula International Airport, University of Montana staff and students donated money to purchase essentials and create take-home care packages for the 64 Missoula agents, which they distributed on Saturday.
Garry Kerr, a professor at the UM Department of Anthropology, organized the effort which he called “Change for Change.”
“I have about 30,000 former students just here in Missoula and 500 right now,” Kerr said. “I said 'Here's a cause, these people are in need. For the price of a cup of Starbucks coffee from each of you, that will mobilize this effort.”
Students donated about $600, in addition to a little under $2,000 from Kerr and $2,000 from businesses including Noon’s Petroleum, KFC, Orange Street Food Farm, Domino’s, Pizza Hut, Shopko and Pattee Creek Market.
“The students deserve the most credit, they care, represent themselves, and the University of Montana,” Kerr wrote in a note that he attached to each bag. “Missoula would not be the same without our excellent and motivated students.”
Kerr also thanked the employees for continued service in the note.
Each bag contained toilet paper, diapers, nonperishable and fresh food including mac and cheese, fruits, milk and ham, in addition to gift cards donated by local food chains, markets and gas stations.
UM students helped gather and organize the donations. Kerr said the initial plan was for the students to help unload the items from the car and assemble the bags on Saturday at the airport, but instead they attended a service after the death of Andrew Harris, a fellow student, and friend of many.
TSA agents are some of the 800,000 federal workers who have gone without pay during the shutdown, which started on Dec. 22. TSA agents at some airports across the country have called in sick while they seek employment elsewhere, resulting in closed down checkpoints and extended wait times for passengers going through security.
Cris Jensen, the director of the Missoula International Airport, said security at the airport has not slowed down and they haven’t seen TSA agents calling in sick.
“So far, we're in pretty good shape but obviously as this goes on longer, we have serious concerns about how it can last.”
Jensen said the airport has been working with local restaurants and individuals to provide lunch for agents every day, in addition to trying to find work for them in the meantime.
“We've given them the opportunity to come to work for the airport and we're actually paying them twice a week so they don't have to wait two weeks for a paycheck,” Jensen said. “Some of them will come work for us, then work their (TSA) shifts, or the other way around, just to help them get some cash flow.”
On Friday, Jan. 18, the airport also held a resource fair where local organizations talked to employees about seeking various forms of assistance.
“We had the Montana Food Network, the Missoula Food Bank, I think five different banks that came in talked about programs where they have low-interest or no-interest loans or how they could modify existing loans.”
Jensen said he and the TSA agents, who are not permitted to talk to the media, are thankful for the community’s help and added that anyone who would like to help can call the airport at 406-728-4381.
“We’re grateful to be from Missoula and have a community that is the kind of place that tries to help itself and help each other,” Jensen said.