'I Think I'm Still the Person that COVID Knocked out of Work for the Longest Out of Everyone at My Old Airport'
Former Transportation Security Officer
Transportation Security Administration
Editor’s note: This interviewee requested anonymity to speak candidly and we granted his request in order to represent a view from a frontline employee.
What was your work situation during the past two years?
[I was] working with the TSA on the frontlines, day in, day out. Unfortunately, me and my colleagues really didn't have the opportunity to telework at all. [It’s] just the nature of our job. We're there to protect the flying public, to protect the integrity of the transportation systems. So, we had to be there in person, unfortunately.
When and how did you find out that the country was going on lockdown, and how did your job change?
I do remember at the beginning, at the tail end of 2019, I remember vividly seeing those initial reports coming out from Asia. I'm certainly aware of the potential for these pandemics to spring up every so often. I had a feeling way back when that this was going to become a serious issue even for us here in the [United] States even though it was very early.
In March 2020, I think I had a fresh tattoo appointment, that very same week when things started shutting down. And then it was like the day or two after that appointment, I was going back into work for the first time, I think is when those initial reports started coming in. And at that point, I had a feeling personally that it was now here and it was coming for all of us, if we weren't ready for it. And I remember my work colleagues, I don't think many of them shared the same worries that I had at that point.
Initially, TSA encouraged the use of personal masks. It was a very confusing time for them when this first came about, because headquarters, I think, didn't really know how to go about handling this either. It was a new situation for all of us. I was one of the first ones I believe, to kind of go out and purchase masks from Amazon and I started wearing them at the checkpoint. I remember getting a lot of questions and some weird looks.
TSA started juggling with these kind-of-conflicting policies. They went from requiring the masks, [and then] they even started handing out at least at our work locations, face shields, and goggles. I wanted to personally wear the goggles just for an extra layer of protection, but then TSA the next week reversed their policy decision, saying that instead everyone needed to wear face shields across the board.
It showed, as the system kept evolving and progressing, the disconnect there between the headquarters and getting the word out to the various airports across the country, to get those proper safety protocols in place. They went through several iterations at the beginning of seemingly conflicting policies and reversals and going back and forth. It was a little hard to keep track of at first.
How long did you initially think this would last? When did you realize this would be a longer-term challenge?
When it was first starting to affect the United States in March, I had no idea how long it was going to last. I didn't know what to expect. I was trying to keep grounded myself, while at the same time, staying in touch with reality, trying to tune out all the noise, lots of misinformation.
Fast forward a little bit to that summer, July 2020, unfortunately, I ended up contracting COVID myself. Once that happened to me, it knocked me out of work for a little bit over a month. And, to my knowledge, I think I'm still the person that COVID knocked out of work for the longest out of everyone at my old airport… . I think that [getting sick] made me realize that we were going to be in this for the long haul. And this was not going away anytime soon, given the fact that a lot of society just wasn't quite doing enough to keep the situation contained.
How has your work-life balance changed, and what do you think your “new normal” will look like?
I try to give TSA management as much credit as I can. They tried their best to have their own public health experts that were within the agency try to keep tabs of the developing situation and then institute certain measures accordingly, the best they could. We, the frontline workforce, didn't have that luxury to telework. But I know for a fact that our administrative staff, management level staff, and I'm sure that the headquarters staff in D.C., they definitely made use of that telework option that became a thing. We would just get a lot of internal work-related emails from headquarters and whatnot. A lot of it was not applicable to us on the frontline. But we could observe and see that those emails indicated that there was a lot of increased usage of the remote workplace environment.
In terms of my direct workplace, what I could see was increased use and the erection of these makeshift barriers, Plexiglas barriers between the officer frontline and the public. I think if you traveled nowadays, you'll probably see these barriers at every checkpoint across the country now. And my gut feeling is that these barriers probably won't be going away anytime soon. The use of masks, too, my gut feeling is we probably won't see that requirement go away anytime soon. Certainly the mandate that's currently in place for the traveling public to also be masked up, it’ll be interesting to see whether that gets lifted in the near future, since hopefully, it seems like the worst of the pandemic is all behind us.
What were some challenges for you during the pandemic and how did you work through them?
At the very beginning of COVID, with the administration that was in place, not having the stance of putting in a mask requirement across the board for public travel like that, that created some challenges, when it appeared that the public was not taking enough measures to prevent the spread of COVID.
Certainly, I think passengers were a bit more understanding, actually, at the beginning of some of the workforces concerns.
At the beginning, I think everyone was just trying their best to be a little bit empathetic, trying to make sense of this unfolding situation. As it progressed and by the time the new administration took over and more mandates kicked in, I definitely observed a little bit more of an increase in the amount of hostile interactions with different travelers. We're the ones in charge of enforcing that mandate, and that really set off a certain amount of passengers. We started seeing an increased amount of belligerent passengers interacting with us and we had to have an increased law enforcement presence on these checkpoints, because we came to expect a certain amount of non-compliance on the part of the traveling public.
I really feel for my former colleagues that are still left at the agency, just because it's another stressor that gets put on top of them, in addition to all the other vast responsibilities that TSA officers have to deal with on a day-to-day basis.
Have there been any positive changes?
It certainly had a negative effect on the front line in terms of stress levels, as it got worse and worse and worse. At the same time, it was nice to see those certain moments of solidarity and positivity from the traveling public and certain supervisory-level staff that were starting to realize how important our jobs were, how important it was to keep us safe. But after a certain amount of time, as the demand for travel started to come back, I felt like those feelings sort of subsided again and we sort of started to fall back into our normal attitude, just focusing on the mission, which is no doubt important. But, I still worry about the wellbeing overall of my former frontline co-workers. I really just hope that headquarters has learned from this experience
If you could go back to the way things were before the pandemic, would you want to?
I'm just thankful that I've since relocated for a new job, a new, fresh start where I’ll be able to take more advantage of a … hybrid workplace set up.
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