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‘I’m not TSA. I’m a bartender’: Workers say they’re defenseless when customers don’t wear masks

Retail outlets are hesitant to police their customers, leaving low-wage workers at risk.

Shoppers enter the Walmart Supercenter store on Christopher Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia on April 5.
Shoppers enter the Walmart Supercenter store on Christopher Columbus Boulevard in South Philadelphia on April 5.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

When she was working as a cashier this summer at a Walmart store in Northeast Philadelphia, a 20-year-old woman said she would see customers wearing their masks under their chins or not wearing one at all, but "it didn’t make sense to make a whole big scene,” especially if the line at her register was long. She worried that her manager would get mad at her if she slowed down the line while dealing with maskless customers.

At a Philadelphia Rite Aid, a worker in her 60s was instructed to alert her manager if a customer was refusing to put on a mask. But managers, she said, usually don’t want to get involved.

And at a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks, a 24-year-old barista said that sometimes customers get belligerent when she asks them to put on a mask. They ask for her name and say they’ll file a complaint with corporate, before storming out. Add that to the list of other inconsiderate things customers do, she said, like stick their heads around the acrylic glass barrier that’s meant to protect both workers and customers.

“People act like our safety doesn’t matter,” said the barista, who, like most of the workers interviewed for this story, asked that her name not be used out of fear of retaliation at work.

As shutdown orders lift and businesses slowly reopen, low-wage service workers are once again at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 — and they have to deal with a whole range of customers, including those who believe it’s their constitutional right not to wear a mask. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wearing one properly limits the spread of the virus.

» READ MORE: Less than half of Philadelphians are wearing masks properly, study finds

Workers say their employers have largely left them to fend for themselves. While most representatives from big-box chains interviewed for this story agreed that masks must be worn in their stores and that worker and customer safety was of the highest importance, none shared a plan that outlined enforcement of mask policy.

“If a customer doesn’t want to wear a face covering, our health ambassadors notify a member of management, who will talk to the customer and try to find a solution,” Walmart spokesperson Casey Staheli said.

» READ MORE: Philadelphia set to be first U.S. city to protect workers against retaliation for calling out coronavirus conditions

Starbucks spokesperson Ana Rigby said, “For customers who are not wearing facial coverings, our partners have received guidance to offer alternative options for customers to order their Starbucks."

And at Rite Aid, “if a customer doesn’t have a face covering," spokesperson Christopher Savarese said, “Rite Aid has masks available free of charge.”

Corporations’ unwillingness to take a hard-line stance on masks is unacceptable, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the New York City-based Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which represents 100,000 workers around the country.

“The employer needs to make sure people are wearing masks just like they make sure people are wearing shoes and shirts," he said, adding that masks are a safety issue and it’s the employer’s responsibility to ensure a safe working environment.

Appelbaum said his union, which represents workers at such employers as Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, negotiated provisions in reopening agreements that said workers had the right to refuse to serve a customer without a mask.

As for workers being expected to enforce mask-wearing?

“That’s not part of their job," he said. “That’s not what they signed up for. That’s not what they’re compensated for.”

The employer needs to make sure people are wearing masks just like they make sure people are wearing shoes and shirts.

Stuart Appelbaum, president of Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union

Employers' refusal to enforce mask-wearing and social-distancing — or their decision to add enforcement to a list of responsibilities for low-wage security guards or retail workers — is yet another workplace safety issue for workers during the pandemic, and one that’s become deadly.

In Flint, Mich., a Family Dollar security guard was fatally shot in May after he refused entrance to a customer without a mask. Last month, at a Wawa in Philadelphia’s Juniata Park neighborhood, an off-duty security guard was shot when he intervened in a social-distancing dispute.

And in April, a worker at the Fresh Grocer on North Broad Street who was in charge of managing the number of customers in the store and making sure customers were masked was beaten and stabbed after an altercation with a customer, said Wendell Young, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Union Local 1776, which represents workers at grocery stores such as Acme, ShopRite, and Fresh Grocer. A spokesperson for Fresh Grocer denied this, saying the company had no violent incidents in response to mask mandates.

Mask enforcement when the customer is always right

The power dynamics between service workers and customers are already complicated: Many workers rely on tips. Others, like the former Walmart cashier, fear customers acting out could mean getting their hours cut or losing their jobs.

At Rivers Casino in Fishtown, workers said customers often ignored mask policy, and some supervisors just let it go.

“The supervisors are afraid of the players," a worker told The Inquirer. "They haven’t been trained properly, and they’re afraid to say something.”

Gregorio Garcia, a bartender at restaurants at Philadelphia International Airport run by OTG, said he was never given any directives on how to deal with customers who don’t wear masks and didn’t have faith that his employer would have his back on the issue regardless.

“Even if you were in the right, if [the customer] started cursing you out, I think they’d take the customer’s side," Garcia, 29, said. "It’s the restaurant industry.”

OTG spokesperson Lisa Rigney said that “within our establishments, like inside a market or restaurant, our crew members would be responsible for asking someone to put on a mask.” But, she said, “if people are walking around without masks at the gates or in the walkways, that would be enforced by the airline or an airport official.”

» READ MORE: Workers at Rivers Casino Philadelphia complain of coronavirus secrecy and lax safety

Garcia said it’s not that straightforward. OTG workers serve customers at the gates, since they can order food and drinks from iPads there, and when servers do take food to the gates, other passengers walk up to them to place an order or ask a question.

Airport spokesperson Florence Brown said that the airline’s mask policy “can be enforced by any Philadelphia Police Department officer or Division of Aviation employee” and that airlines and other organizations can and have refused service to those who do not follow the rules.

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work and life? Ask our reporters.

But Garcia said no one appears to be enforcing guidelines at the gates, and he doesn’t feel equipped to.

“I’m not TSA,” he said. “I’m a bartender.”