In June, a video went viral in which a woman filmed herself tearing apart a face mask display at a Target in Scottsdale, Ariz. The week before, a customer vandalized a grocery store in Dallas after being asked to put her mask on. In May, a security guard at a Family Dollar in Flint, Mich., was fatally shot by a customer in a face mask dispute.
None of those scenes surprised me, although my experiences working at a small grocery chain with stores in Pennsylvania have thankfully fallen short of that level of violence.
If you are fortunate, you have been able to work from home during the pandemic and collect a paycheck without putting your life at risk.
But when COVID-19 hit the United States, many businesses that the public suddenly recognized as essential didn’t have the option of shutting down or going remote.
We’ve had to make it up as we go along, with little guidance.
With lockdowns easing up in parts of the country, a third group of workers is returning to stores, salons, and restaurants that had been shut down. In an environment where they constantly fear for their health, frontline workers are simultaneously playing referee for an increasingly polarized and aggravated public.
Pandemic safety is a group effort. We need customers and the government to step up.
For every anti-mask conspiracy rant I see on social media, there is another complaint about a store not cleaning enough, or not enforcing mask mandates. I find the latter understandable — until you take a moment to realize who “the store” is.
Most retail and service employees are not empowered to confront customers. This has changed somewhat since licking your fingers to open produce bags has gone from merely icky to outright dangerous. But even with support from management, the rise of violent incidents gives us second thoughts about inviting conflict. And many service workers are being asked to shoulder that risk for minimum wage or slightly above.
I support stores hiring security guards to help, and many retail stores have scheduled or hired extra staff for sanitation. But labor costs money, and the average grocery store operates on a 2.2% profit margin. Many restaurants run a deficit for most of the year. Curbside pickup is almost impossible to implement for stores that didn’t already have the digital infrastructure.
I was heartened by broad public support, and a statewide grant announced Thursday, for essential workers’ hazard pay. But the bonuses are not proportionate to the risks employees bear. Petitions and media coverage pushed some large chains to provide at least small temporary increases. Grocery stores have been able to pass some of their panic buying profits down to their employees. But with reopening, consumers are returning to their old spending patterns, and most bonuses have evaporated.
And a lot of employees returning to nonessential workplaces don’t receive hazard pay at all. Their businesses took a hit in the lockdowns and can’t afford bonuses or staffing increases. The level of risk, meanwhile, remains the same or higher as states reopen even in the face of rising infection rates. Mitigation measures will have to be maintained for the long haul. Putting private businesses in charge of safety without providing added resources could exacerbate inequality so that the wealthy get safe shopping experiences at glitzy malls while the poor are coughed on at the dollar store.
So, what to do?
As a customer, prioritize online shopping and curbside pickup. Shop fast where that’s not possible. If you feel unsafe at a place you must visit, approach employees with patience. Ask about their procedures before making demands. Understand that they might have to wait for a manager, or may have even more urgent issues to address. Talk to the highest level of management you can, and talk about safety systems rather than specific employees. Report businesses to the authorities as a last resort, knowing that this might further increase polarization.
Make sure that you yourself go along with any rules of the business; avoid providing a slippery slope to the scofflaws. If you don’t distance in the register line, it makes it harder for the staff to ask another customer to wear their mask correctly.
As a citizen, demand systemic solutions. Lawmakers need to issue a federal mask mandate. A comprehensive Paycheck Protection Program tailored to small and mid-sized businesses would provide the necessary staff without incurring financial hardship.
A federal Essential Workers Bill of Rights would ensure that all workers can rely on the same minimum standard of protection, and have recourse when their employers fail them.
Call on your elected officials to implement those measures to keep everybody safe.
If we’re really all in this together, those of us on the front lines could use some help.