The Daily Press has launched a series of interviews with essential workers who are working bravely and diligently to keep the Santa Monica community functioning.

Nicole Honaker-Hwang is a motor coach operator for Big Blue Bus. She originally hails from Kentucky and served in the army for several years before moving to Los Angeles with her husband. The constant mask monitoring of her job can be stressful, but she appreciates every customer who stops to thank her and looks forward to seeing school children and tourists back on the bus one day.

How did you feel coming to work throughout the pandemic?

I remember when the lockdown very first happened it was really kind of scary. I remember a man had to come on the front of my bus with his walker and he thanked me and said ‘well life goes on for me’ as he still had to go to his dialysis appointment. I think that was the moment where it became clear to me that we are doing a really important job and people really need us. It’s helped me keep looking forward, really hang in there, even though it can be stressful at times.

How has your job changed?

We are boarding people through our back doors with the exception of if someone needs assistance we help board them through the front doors. At the beginning it was a lot quieter, but as things got a little back to normal it has slowly become more busy. A lot of the customers are other essential workers. The main customers that are missing are students. We used to get a lot of students especially from Santa Monica College or the high schools, middle schools, even the elementary schools.

What steps are being taken to protect drivers and riders?

In recent months most of our buses have gotten barriers so we as the driver are closed off with plexiglass at the front of our bus. We are being as safe as we can, but we do have to sometimes ask that people put on their masks. There are some people that don’t want to wear them or aren’t wearing them or are wearing them improperly. We have to stay focused but it can be stressful at times, because other customers can get upset about that.

What are you most looking forward to doing again when the pandemic ends?

I’m most looking forward to traveling back home to see family when I feel like it’s safe. I was able to go visit early last year before the pandemic. I’m really grateful for that because my mom had been sick and I was able to be there for her before all this. I’m looking forward to going back and being there for her again.

Do you feel appreciated as an essential worker?

I would say I do feel appreciated most of the time. A lot of my customers thank me every day, especially those that require a little assistance. I always try to be really patient and make sure they get on and off safely. In the beginning of the pandemic one of my customers came up to me and specifically thanked me for risking my life. At the beginning of this I didn’t really know the severity of the virus. It just stopped me and I thought ‘wow am I doing that?’ It was really nice to be acknowledged and appreciated.