How My Boss Made Space for Me When I Needed It Most
I had an emotional breakdown at work. To be frank, I have been met with more responsibilities, lack of support from my direct higher-up, and an indescribable amount of tension within our walls due to America’s current state of affairs. My role has shifted. Not only do I register patients for imaging scans and invasive procedures, I also screen patients for COVID-19 symptoms prior to entering our waiting areas. My hours, on some days, are longer than others and my shifts have been inconsistent. I have been exposed to positive COVID-19 patients as well as patients who presented with symptoms or who have been around someone diagnosed with Coronavirus, COVID-19 in the last fourteen days.
I am currently on my ninth day of self-monitoring as our Employee Occupational Health team believes I have not been in contact with these patients long enough for it to warrant actual testing for COVID-19 — I am presumed to be safe enough to be at work. In each scenario, I was prepared, wearing a face mask, gloves, and goggles. They too had on face masks — one was wearing gloves. I was with each person for about five to six minutes. Upon verifying their status or confirming symptoms, these patients were directed to the PUI (Patient Under Investigation) facility where they would, in fact, receive their care.
I should have prefaced this by stating, we started the Coronavirus season with three screeners. One of my co-workers who screened with me is out on medical leave, post-surgery. The other has had two panic attacks due to exposure to positive patients and the fear it brings along with it. I stand alone, doing what I do to ensure the safety of myself and others.
But, I don’t feel safe at all.
From the constant cleaning of our front doors and entryways to questioning over one hundred fifty people per day, and dealing with the various attitudes that accompany some of these people, I am worn thin. Because we are short-staffed, there is no one else to turn to. We are all trying to make what we do work with the help we still have. It is not easy. There are many days where I dread getting up and taking another stab at the workday, but my bills are not going anywhere and I still have to take care of Jernee.
One of the recent changes among the ones listed above presented to us by my direct higher-up was to have us come in one hour early on our respective closing days and reduce our lunch break by thirty minutes. (That would be a 9 to 10-hour shift with a thirty-minute break.) She emailed this order to us one of the days I was scheduled to close. I received the message on my phone and upon reading it, the anger that had been boiling up in me unloaded.
I typed in a rage-response to her what I would and would not do and why it is wrong of them to ask more of us, then take even more from us as well. She passed my thoughts on to our center manager and since she and I have a history (she used to be our direct supervisor, left the center for a year, then returned, and is now the current center manager), she called me into her office to speak with her.
Come. Sit, Please. Tell Me What You’re Feeling.
I sat in her office knowing full-well why I was there. I had “acted out of character”, my response to an ill-fitting request of those who are already overworked, underpaid, and thrown into roles, not previously designed for them, was not what they were expecting. But, our center manager understood this. She said eight words to me, “Come. Sit, please. Tell me what you’re feeling.” And, I did. As I expressed what I felt and why and was open about how we’re being treated and what it does to me, the tears rolled down my face. My breaths quickened. My chest heaved. Sobbing became something that could not be contained.
She said, “You can take that mask off. I don’t need to be protected from you.” She handed me a box of Kleenex and let me continue. She listened to me, truly listened to me. I saw the expression on her face change from “concern” to “understanding.” In the midst of my storm, she tried her best to be a raft — something that provided safety. I cried until there was a sense of relief in my heart. She assured me they would find a way to lessen some of the weight hoisted upon us recently.
She did. She kept her word. But she has always done this. She informed me on that day if I ever felt the need to express myself to come to her — to not let my feelings stay pent up until they have nowhere else to go but out and in a way someone will not understand it or expect it. She ended our conversation by saying, “I am saying this because I care about your head (pointing to her head) and I care about your heart (pointing to her heart).”
Fast-forward to six days later on the evening of June 04, 2020, my co-worker, another African-American woman, was faced with the blatant tongue of a racist patient we have an obligation to serve. The next morning, she could not wait to come to my station in an attempt to tell me what happened. She teared up as soon as she saw me, and I felt it. I already knew something happened the night before that would change our center — change our leadership. We talked as quickly as we could and I ached for not being able to hug her — to provide comfort. I said, “We are not who they say we are. Do not let them live in your heart. Don’t give them room there.” She shook her head in agreement at me, wiped the tears from her eyes, thanked me quickly, and went back inside to register patients.
On the same day, I had my run-ins with a few racist patients who flaunted their “Trump for President 2020” paraphernalia upon entering the building and attempted to bypass donning masks. I was not having it. I stood my ground. I always do. I always will. You will not treat me in a way that is not aligned with how I wish to be treated or refuse me the respect I deserve. I am not a child. I will not be spoken to as one and I certainly will not bend to your rules for me without my consent.
I got through my workday as I always do — with prayer, belief in the work I do, and assistance from my co-workers. But, the pain was there. It sat in places in my body where I have not felt it before. My heart is heavy and it must show on my face because as I was leaving, our center manager said, “Tre . . . Come here, please. How are you feeling? How are you dealing with everything that’s going on in the world right now?” And all I needed was an invitation to tell her what was/is on my heart — to fully express just how hurt I am by the hands, tongues, actions, and behavior of her people.
I cannot be in her position. She cannot be in mine. She will never know how I truly feel just as I will never know what it’s like to be on her side of things trying to understand what is going on in my head — in my heart. But, she is empathetic to our plight. She has assured us we do not have to deal with ignorance and if someone brings their nasty behavior into our building and attempts to toss it at us, she is to be summoned to the location of such things. She let it be known, “You do not have to deal with the stupidity of others. You come and get me and I will handle it. I do not want anyone here feeling less than who they actually are. I won’t stand for that.”
I am forty years old. I have been working full-time since the age of eighteen. I have been Black my entire life — this will never change, however, this is the first time, someone in a position of power at any of my jobs has taken the time our center manager has to hear me.
Does it change what I feel or ease the heavy weight on my shoulders? No.
But, it is a start.
*Author’s Note: One of the worst things you can say to me is “I don’t see color” or “I don’t see race.” I need you to see me — to hear me. Seeing who I am and what my plight has been opens the doors to the conversations we need to have regarding systemic racism, social injustice, and how we can create change. I don’t need or want anything else. My boss has taken the necessary steps to sit her employees of color down to hear each of us out — to be there for us. That is how you move towards change.