Putting Health and Safety First in the COVID-19 Era

It’s been a year since the global COVID-19 pandemic began turning our industry and our lives upside down, and CWA airline agents have been on the front lines at stations across the country.  Throughout this period, CWA has met with the airlines to discuss safety concerns, including pandemic leave, attendance points, quarantine, cleaning, contact tracing and increasing incidents of airport rage as a result of the mask mandates implemented to keep our members safe. 

Our locals’ safety committees have already played a crucial role in helping agents navigate through this difficult period. At CLT in Charlotte, for example, the executive board of Local 3645 has been developing an email system to help in reporting members’ concerns on all safety-related topics, with a lot of focus on how to manage social distancing. CWA and American Airlines have launched a joint effort to ensure COVID-19 compliance through station inspections. We encourage anyone with questions or concerns to send the details to [email protected].

Our Members Speak Out

Recently we had a chance to talk to some American and Piedmont agents who have been in the trenches, dealing with COVID-19 and other health and safety issues for the past twelve months. For the most part, they say they’ve seen some improvements in the ability of workers and management to cope with the “new normal,” but serious hurdles remain in 2021.

Roni Clark, a 13-year Piedmont Airlines veteran who works as a ramp agent in Charlotte, says her biggest safety concerns are still around COVID-19, especially when break rooms become too crowded or equipment isn’t properly wiped down after each use.

“I take care of myself,” says Roni, “and I bring my own wipes and cleaning products. We get a lot of alerts in our email about our fellow workers getting COVID, and that makes me think the airport is a hotspot because there are so many people coming in and out. People believe it won’t happen to them, so they still huddle together without masks.” 

Local officers have tried to get tents set up as alternative spaces, but issues related to lighting, noise, and heating in cold weather are slowing their progress. Roni says she appreciates all the efforts of the 3645 leadership team, but she’d like to see more support from management. “If workers see management stepping up, we’ll be more likely to follow.”

In Boston, customer service coordinator Fidel Gamero has worked for American Airlines for 11 years. He told us that passenger confusion is a major problem, especially because COVID-19 regulations change so often now. “Many international travelers are not really prepared and don’t have the paperwork required. Each country has different requirements. When we let people know what’s missing in their paperwork or that their negative test result doesn’t fall within the right window, they get upset.”

But Fidel adds that a lot of people are grateful for the help agents provide, and he sees fewer angry passengers these days. “When they see you’re not trying to just send them home, they say thank you.”

Patrick Fay, an agent at BOS with 35 years of service for American and US Air under his belt, agreed that 99 percent of people go through the airport without a problem. In the case of passengers who become angry or upset, Patrick blames “misinformation, disinformation, and even sometimes too much information.” He says people are overwhelmed with details around COVID-19, and he tries to let them know they simply have to wear a mask and put it on properly.

“Sometimes there’s a feeling of entitlement, and people don’t want to wear their masks, but I think it’s important to remain calm. I tell them ‘look, If I have to wear one, you have to wear one, okay?’” He adds that generally supervisors back agents up in problem cases.

Patrick tries to be a mentor to younger agents, letting them know how to de-escalate situations and not take the stresses of the job home with them. He also tells them to appreciate the value of their union contract. “I want the younger generation to know that we’re lucky to have a contract, especially in these times.”

Debbie Bergeron, another Boston agent, echoed Fidel and Patrick, when she said that customers are not as well-informed as they could be. She tends to see the most belligerence from passengers who haven’t educated themselves about the rules before they show up for their flights. “With those customers, the respect is often not there. We are all human and this should be reciprocated. This is when we sometimes feel unsafe.”

On the question of COVID risks and safety, Debbie says she is seeing more mask compliance lately, and if passengers don’t have the correct type of mask, they will usually take one provided by the airline and wear it.

Debbie says she feels generally safe at work these days because of the plexiglass installed at various points and the fact that passengers scan their own boarding passes, so no one is passing germs from one person to another. If the break room looks crowded, the agents find alternate areas so they don't risk spreading germs.

Debbie summed up the feeling of all the agents we talked with when she said it’s still a struggle to make sure that all passengers and all agents from reservations to the ticket counters to the gates are on the same page with the same information—and that’s really not always the case. “Some days, things are better than others, just like anywhere else in the world.”