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Managing COVID-19-Related Violence in Retail and Restaurant Workplaces

Posted by Cindy Smail Tuesday, September 08, 2020

With the COVID-19 pandemic’s end nowhere in sight, it’s only natural that some people are growing tired of measures introduced to limit the disease’s spread in public places. Unfortunately, objections to city and state laws and corporate policies have sometimes led to violence against employees, which employers — particularly in the retail and restaurant industries — must plan for and protect against.

A Mounting Danger

As retail stores, restaurants, and similar businesses have reopened, customers have often been required to wear masks, practice social distancing, and adhere to other guidelines intended to limit COVID-19’s spread. In some cases, these rules have been introduced voluntarily by businesses; in others, they’ve been required by law.

Although intended to protect store and restaurant employees as well as patrons from the disease, these rules have been met by significant resistance from some consumers that at times has turned violent. The reasons are myriad, including misinformation about the efficacy of masks and a belief by some individuals that requiring masks infringes on their rights.

While often manifesting as threats and verbal assaults, this resistance has also turned physical — in rare cases, it’s been deadly. In May, for example, a security guard at a Michigan variety store chain location was shot and killed after arguing with a customer who objected to state’s mandate that masks be worn inside stores.

This adds to the already significant workplace violence risk that existed even before the pandemic. In 2018 — the most recent year for which data is available — 156 retail, wholesale, and foodservice workers were victims of homicides, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This represents one-third of the 453 workplace homicides reported that year.

Taking Action

Recognizing this growing danger for employees, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently posted on its website guidance on how retailers and others can prevent workplace violence. The CDC’s recommendations include:

  • Offering customers options to minimize contact with others.
  • Posting highly visible signs about COVID-19 prevention policies, which should also be advertised on company websites.
  • Training employees to be aware of surroundings, recognize threats, and use security systems.
  • Establishing frameworks to report and respond to violent incidents.
  • Having employees assigned to encourage prevention policies work in teams.
  • Creating safe areas for employees to go when in danger.

Beyond these specific steps, it’s important for employers to create plans that address how to manage potentially violent incidents. These plans should outline employees’ potential responses to various scenarios, including when it’s appropriate to engage more senior leaders and when to escalate a situation to law enforcement. Plans should also consider hazards unique to specific locations, such as the number of entrances and exits.

Defusing Tense Situations

As they revisit and reinforce employee training, employers should consider how to balance the desire to protect employees and customers from COVID-19 with the need to avoid conflicts. The CDC, for example, recommends that employees do not force upset or violent individuals to wear masks or comply with other policies.

Employees should thus be trained on where to draw the line — in other words, when it’s best to stop seeking compliance and focus instead on avoiding a violent outburst. For example, if a customer insists on not wearing a mask in-store, an employee could offer to shop on their behalf or complete a carryout order with delivery to their vehicle.

More broadly, employees should know how to keep customers calm and prevent conflicts from arising — as well as how to deescalate any tense situations. This is especially important as most employees’ pre-pandemic job descriptions likely did not include enforcing store policies under threat of physical harm.

Enforcing Regulations

At the same time, it’s important to consider the consequence of not diligently enforcing COVID-19 prevention policies. Failure to enforce such measures could result in fines or other penalties; in the case of restaurants, it could put liquor licenses in jeopardy.

Noncompliance could also lead to charges that an employer has violated the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) general duty clause, which requires that workplaces be “free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm.” Some states, such as Virginia, have introduced their own occupational safety plans, which include specific COVID-19 regulations.

As the pandemic marches on, employers must continue to guard against workplace violence. To keep employees safe while enforcing mask requirements and other preventive policies, it’s important that they create specific anti-violence plans and train their employees to avoid and limit the impact of violent confrontations.

Cindy Smail