frontline workers violence prevention

Preventing Violence and Abuse of Frontline Workers

Even since COVID-19 entered the picture, there’s been a surge of violence and abuse targeted at frontline workers: retail shop employees, physicians, nurses, grocery delivery couriers, and many more.

But violence does not occur in a vacuum. Every action has a cause, no matter how misguided.

In this article, we’ll be looking at the things that’ve caused the abuse towards frontline staff to spike during the coronavirus pandemic.

Then, we’ll touch on the ways to prevent your frontline workers from getting assaulted.

And for dessert, we will answer the question of whether queues and waiting causes the abuse.

A pandemic within a pandemic: violence against frontline staff

Frontline retail workers face an unprecedented wave of violence and anger aimed at them. Often, they find themselves caught in the crossfire when trying to enforce store or state policies — things they have little to no control over.

After the number of cases of abuse towards shop workers during the COVID-19 pandemic skyrocketed, the UK retail leaders wrote a letter to the Prime Minister urging action against this violence.

“It is now part of the job to face this daily torrent of abuse and threats and we do not believe that this is acceptable and urge you to act.”

The petition calls on the House of Commons to enact legislation that protects retail workers, including making the punishment for the abuse more serious.

Do retail owners have the reason to panic? Let’s look at the numbers.

On the frontline of war against COVID

When it comes to retail workers and the level of threats they face during the pandemic, the “frontline” part in “frontline staff” becomes doubly justified.

It is, indeed, not unlike military aggression.

As much as we want to shift the blame to coronavirus, the violent trend was there long before the first infection case.

In February 2020, Boris Johnson said in parliament, “We should not tolerate crimes of violence against shopworkers.” This plea was prompted by a survey from the British Retail Consortium which revealed an average of 424 incidents of violence or abuse against retail staff every day in 2019.

The number of incidents in 2019 rose by 9% compared to the previous year, with an increased use of weapons. Again, that’s even before COVID-19!

From March 2019 to March 2020, 83% of people who worked in the convenience sector had been subjected to verbal abuse. The study estimated 50,000 incidents of violence, with a quarter resulting in physical harm.

Shockingly, 10,000 of the reported attacks involved a weapon:

  • a knife in 43% of cases
  • a firearm in 5% of cases

Abuse and violence towards shop workers effectively doubled since COVID-19. Since the outbreak, one in six workers are currently experiencing abuse on every shift they work.

62% of workers surveyed said they had experienced verbal abuse since 14 March. Almost a third had been threatened by a customer, and 4% had been assaulted.

That’s more than 3,500 assaults every day over a month, when averaged across all three million workers in the surveyed sector. And it’s not stopping any time soon.

USDAW’s latest survey on the impact of COVID-19 on the workforce shows that customers continue to abuse retail employees during this crisis.

Customers are unwilling to comply with COVID-19 safety regulations

As stores, states, and local governments encourage people to wear masks in public, retail workers are bearing the brunt of the backlash.

Kristine Holtham, a Kroger meat department employee from Lansing, Michigan, was met with aggression when she asked a customer to follow the rules and put on a mask. The man refused to comply and said, “I don’t give a damn about your health.”

“I face each day with anxiety and it gets worse when I see customers refuse to wear masks. I am a mother and my children need me to stay healthy.”

“I haven’t felt safe since we reopened,” says another employee, a fashion chain’s shop assistant. “I’m shouted at all the time. Ever since I came back to work, the abuse from customers has been daily.”

Not all of the violence is verbal only, unfortunately.

There have been documented threats of coughing and spitting on staff, but even that is not the end of the lockdown-induced violence.

196 out of 5,000 workers surveyed have been physically assaulted — almost 4%. And when there’s assault, there’s a risk of a lethal outcome.

For example, Family Dollar security guard Calvin Munerlyn was shot and killed in May, after refusing to let a customer into the store without a mask. Munerlyn got into an argument because he wanted the customer to follow orders mandated not even by the store, but by the state.

Allegedly, the shopper’s husband and son came back to the store later on and shot the 43-year-old security guard in the back of the head.

Similarly, an employee at Waffle House got shot by a customer, after the latter was told to leave for not wearing a mask.

In another case, a woman in Oklahoma City shot three McDonald’s employees after she was told the fast-food chain had closed dining rooms due to the pandemic.

Earlier in May, a crowd outside a Costco in New Rochelle, New York, became so aggressive when the warehouse opened 30 minutes later than expected that the administration had to call the police.

“In 30-plus years of studying retail and crisis situations, we have never seen a situation of customers being so rude to hourly employees,” Larry Barton, a professor of crisis management and public safety at the University of Central Florida, told Business Insider’s Mary Hanbury.

Customers become more aggressive, and workers have to face the backlash for the safety policies that stores and companies — not themselves — roll out. The social distancing measures, such as limiting the number of shoppers and requiring customers to wear masks, have “contributed to some of the flashpoints for abuse”.

Frontline workers are the ones required to make sure customers follow new rules but receive little to no support as to how to handle an aggressive person.

The Karen pandemic: soccer moms against retail workers

If you’ve been on the internet long enough, no doubt you’ve seen the name Karen being used as a pejorative. Maybe someone even called you a Karen, in which case let’s refresh what being Karen actually means.

Karen is a middle-aged woman with a proverbial chip on her shoulder and a stereotypical can-I-speak-to-your-manager-haircut.

There are several theories of how the term “Karen” got started. Some point to a scene from Mean Girls, some recall a 2005 Dane Cook joke, and some say it has everything to do with a certain subreddit making fun of someone’s annoying ex-wife.

Whatever the origins are, the term took on a life of its own.

It started out as a mostly harmless meme poking fun at soccer moms with an entitlement complex, but the term evolved over time into an anti-mask COVID truther with a pinch of racism on top.

Ever since the pandemic started, the rates of seeing Karens out in the wild skyrocketed. Suddenly, they were everywhere.

Videos of middle-aged women refusing to comply with simple instructions became all the rage on the internet.

The internet “mob justice force” was out for blood, and many such Karens were found out, doxed and made to face the repercussions.

But, as with everything on the internet, people often went overboard with the meme. Just like “ok, boomer”, the name Karen started being applied to any situation.

Real-life women named Karen started getting caught in the crossfire, and some even suggested there was more to Karen hunts than simple wish for social justice.

Indeed, many felt that there was a touch of misogyny to it. Even though male equivalents of Karen (Kens) got their fair share of spotlight, the meme was mostly targeted at women.

As a result, some even compared the term “Karen” to the N-word. A bold strategy that, unsurprisingly, backfired and led to even more anti-Karen rhetoric and derision.

Some people never learn: don’t mess with the internet.

COVID-19 related incidents of violence against physicians and nurses

Physicians, nurses, and other frontline healthcare workers have been celebrated in many countries as heroes for their work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

doctors covid-19 superheroes

Wow, this sure makes up for all the abuse!

That’s of little consolation, considering what these healthcare workers have to face daily. Not everyone is willing to appreciate their effort and contribution.

Quite the opposite: many people heckle, verbally abuse and even assault medical workers. Many nurses have been attacked because they have been in close contact with COVID-19 patients — which is, well, the entire point of their job.

Such attacks occurred at health workers’ homes, on their way to and from work and even during funerals of health workers’ colleagues who died from the virus.

Some of this can be explained with misplaced anger, fear, panic and grief from personal losses of their own.

Other reasons, on the other hand, include misinformation about how COVID-19 operates and spreads.

COVID truthers — kind of like anti-vaxxers on steroids — have started manufacturing lies: from debunked rumors about 5G towers infecting people with coronavirus through radio waves to a cabal of reptile pedophiles from another planet forcing us to wear masks to break our will.

And no, we didn’t make any of this up.

Healthcare workers, despite battling against the virus, are made to be the scapegoats. In the eyes of conspiracy theorists, they and “the government” work together to conceal the truth, and social distancing, masks and other measures are clearly the means of terrorizing the population.

And while the nebulous government is far away and well-protected, healthcare workers are right here, within spitting distance — literally!

The violence against health workers is such that the government of India made it a non-bailable offense with imprisonment up to seven years for those found guilty.

Strict punishment is perhaps the least that could be done to prevent the abuse. There are many other recommendations on what governments have to do to reduce such attacks on medical staff:

  • The collection of data on the incidence and types of attacks on healthcare personnel.

  • Misinformation about COVID-19 needs to be debunked and countered (e.g. YouTube and Twitter have started hiding content that spreads false rumors).

  • Investment in health security measures to protect healthcare workers as part of COVID-19 emergency budgets.

  • Unity among health professionals and their associations in speaking out forcefully against all acts of discrimination, intimidation and violence against healthcare workers.

Do queues make customers more violent?

It’s no secret that queues and long wait times make us frustrated, but do they make us violent, too?

Let us refer to a 2019 study called How psychology might alleviate violence in queues: Perceived future wait and perceived load moderate violence against service providers.

The study found that perceived predicted future wait time for queues can “buffer the causes of violence towards service staff”. What it means is that there is a clear relationship between crowded queues and violence towards service staff.

Increased crowdedness is associated with more incidents of violence. The study also suggests that perceived wait times and perceived load of service staff can drastically affect customer behavior.

When people perceive the future wait to be short and the load on the system to be high, it lessens the likelihood of a violent outcome.

Another study, The Consequences of Queuing: Crowding, Situational Features and Aggression in Entertainment Precincts, echoes this sentiment.

This study observed different sites and their respective rates of on-site and off-site aggression. The sites with the consistently highest aggression displayed pedestrian vectors with more cross paths, higher levels of crowding, more time spent waiting in queues and ineffective queue management practices.

Crowding was shown to have a big impact on the frequency of aggression. Places vulnerable to congestion were more likely to experience acts of aggression among customers.

In 96 hours of observations by researchers, a total of 136 acts of aggression were observed, with 42 considered high-level.

Similar Canadian studies show that “queues for entry are a frequent location for aggression”. Violence is lowest when people believe they have a short wait ahead of them and they see that service providers are working hard.

In other words, effective queue management has the potential for reducing aggression. Or, to put it into more scientific terms:

”Situational precipitators appear to operate in queues, most notably where formal management is absent, queues are slow or queue jumping is common. Removing or alleviating these factors will, therefore, reduce the potential for violence.”

Health and Safety Laboratory’s review of effective management of the risk of violence in retail puts emphasis on improving organization. The reason is that the pressure due to excessive workloads and shortages may “slow employee performance and lead to delays, queues and customer impatience and hostility”.

In 2005 alone, 13.2 million Britons experienced major tantrums during their shopping trips. Long queues at tills are the greatest cause of retail rage, with a third of Brits admitting they lost control.

The second and third biggest causes are, incidentally, bored sales staff and crowds, which can also stem from poor queue planning.

The Health and Safety Laboratory’s review sets up a quick list of queue-related tips:

  • organize competent routing of customers to prevent congestion via signage and queuing lanes
  • ensure speedy service via a queue management system
  • control the visitor capacity of the premises to prevent overcrowding
  • limit queues by having more staff at busy times.

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With things already looking tense, businesses need to seek ways to alleviate any extra tension, be it from poorly trained staff or from poorly managed queues.

We’ve said times and times again how proper queue management can help with social distancing between customers. But as you can see, there are other benefits to using tools like Qminder.

Don’t wait for things to escalate. Grab your free 14-day trial of Qminder and minimize your queues and crowding right now.



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