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Can you tip TSA agents during the government shutdown?

It’s a valid question. Agents have been working long hours without pay to keep order, and they’re doing their best to ensure travelers can get from one place to another safely. Factoring in the fact that there is no end to the shutdown in sight, flyers might think that tipping just sort of seems like the right thing to do.

Well, the answer to this question is no, you cannot tip TSA workers, and if you do, it could actually cause more harm than good.  In a Washington Post op-ed written by TSA Agent Angel Stephensen describes a scenario in which a passenger attempted to give her a cash tip. “I had to refuse,” she wrote. “I could lose my job if I accepted, I told [the passenger]. But thanks for the thought.”

Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and federal ethics expert, explains that while there is no law that overtly prohibits “tipping,” there are strict regulations on bribery. While the motive of giving a gift to a TSA employee might be well-intentioned, if caught, the charges for bribery are no joke. Under federal law, the TSA Agent, or the passenger who tips, could face a up to five years in prison or a civil fine of up to $50,000 or both.

“An executive branch employee may accept a gift valued at $20 or less, but may not accept cash,” said Clark in an email to TPG. “In addition, the gift regulation states that it’s ‘prudent for an employee to decline a gift if acceptance would cause a reasonable person to question the employee’s integrity or impartiality.'”

That being said, it would be a bad idea for TSA agents to accept what would be considered a “permissible gift” in the context of airport security screenings, whether it’s a Starbucks gift card or $20 bill. “Such a gift might cause people to question an employee’s impartiality, might lead to passengers believing they have an obligation to give and could lead to tension among the screeners who work in teams at airports,” added Clark.

So, if you can’t tip, what can you do? Stephensen expressed that, amid the shutdown, travelers have been expressing more gratitude for TSA officers than ever. “By my count, we’re getting more thank-yous in the past two weeks than in the entire 10 years I’ve been here,” she wrote. “When people try to express extra appreciation or sympathy, it’s hard to know what to say back. ‘You’re welcome’? We don’t have much choice.”

Her suggestion for the best way to help your TSA screeners — and perhaps, any other government employees stuck working the skeleton shift during the government shutdown — is to contact your congressperson. Learn more about how to find your local representative here.

Featured image by Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

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