When it comes to maskless customers, new advice for workers is clear: don’t engage

by Caroline Bottger

It’s a feature of lockdown life: a video emerges on social media of a defiant shopper who refuses to wear a face mask. He or she is then summarily escorted from a store’s premises, either by employees or embarrassed family members.

The situation doesn’t always end in a shouting match. The Trace counted at least 13 shootings since March related to non-compliance with mask regulations. 44 percent of McDonald’s workers reported physical and verbal abuse after confronting customers who did not wear face masks. It’s beginning to add up: In a Gallup poll from July 2020, worker satisfaction with safety conditions in the midst of COVID-19 fell to 61 percent in 2020, compared with 75 percent in 2019.

The violence is a misguided attempt at taking back control of one’s life, opined Jerry Narsh, a police chief in Holly, Michigan, where a 68-year-old man allegedly wiped his nose on a worker at a Dollar General store after he was asked to wear a mask. Harassing employees “is the wrong battle to pick to feel in control again,” he said.

Nonetheless, the Center of Disease Control is stepping in to provide help for employees and managers faced with difficult customers. To limit the threat of violence, on Aug. 24 the CDC released the following guidelines: “Limiting Workplace Violence Associated With Covid-19 Prevention Policies in Retail and Services Businesses.”

The central message of the guidelines: ‘do not engage.’ Employees are instructed to not argue with a customer and not attempt to force anyone to comply with guidelines. They are also encouraged to physically remove themselves from a situation if they are threatened, and work in twos, to provide backup.

Workers say it’s a challenge to be on the front line of COVID-19 enforcement. Anthony Hernandez, a barista in Chicago, IL, told NPR, “Sometimes they’ll [the customers] say, ‘You’re being very disrespectful. You’re telling me I have to wear my mask, that I have to do this and this.’ And they’ll escalate to that point and you’re just standing there with the baristas, going, ‘What do I do? What do I do?’”

However, other workers question the efficacy of mask policies when faced with a recalcitrant customer. “We are told to not confront customers who will not wear a mask, or wear it properly. How is a policy without enforcement, actually a policy?” a Lowe’s employee told Yahoo Finance. (Many big-box retailers such as Lowe’s and Walmart have mask mandates in place.)

While the guidelines might seem as if they let employers off the hook from their own mandates, they are in fact in line with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) General Duty Clause: employers have a duty to “furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.” In other words, employers are directly responsible for employee safety, and must rectify situations where this might be threatened.

The impact of these strategies will be determined by managers: these are only guidelines, after all, and not mandatory.

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