ITS LIKE ROAD RAGE WITHOUT THE CARS. Retail workers are now targets of customer anger verging on rage. “We had the occasional mean and picky customer before Covid-19,” says Shannon Ferris, “but now it’s a million times worse.”
Shannon works behind the counter at Amoto Gelato in Vancouver. In a recent incident she reminded a customer to respect the social distancing rules. This prompted the customer to “start screaming at my co-worker,” says Shannon.
The customer yelled “you’re nothing but a disgusting person,” says Shannon and “I come from a wealthy family and you’re nothing but a dirty person.”
Shannon shouted back “You need to leave.”
“Ever since COVID-19, everybody’s just impatient or they’re not accepting of the new rules, and they get very aggressive. It’s very hard to deal with,” says Shannon.
On July 5 a customer in a Mississauga grocery store flew into a rage when workers asked him to conform to store policy and wear a mask. He refused and started shouting.
Video footage shows him yelling: “I’m never coming back here again. I’m going to have the media here. You guys can all wear your masks and you can all die and you can all get sick. Because when you wear the mask, you get sick. It’s science.”
“This is a communist, socialist lie,” the man continues barely a quarter metre from a store worker he believes is from China. He yells into the worker’s face: “Where did we get our Wuhan communist virus? From China. From you guys.”
Before leaving the man shouts, “Go back to China where you came from. And take your coronavirus back to Wuhan.”
Police charged him with causing a disturbance. A police spokesman said hate crime charges must first be approved by the Ministry of the Attorney General and Crown Attorney.
Reduced to tears
Jon Comstock, an assistant manager at Cobs Bread at Main Street, in Vancouver has also been the target of abusive customers.
“We usually get a couple of people a day that will use abusive language. For not accepting cash, we’ve been called ‘assholes’ and things worse than that,” says Jon.
“Recently, a guy got aggressive with my colleague over the usage of a debit card. She told him that if you have a debit card, it has to be inserted instead of tapping. And he shouted, ‘Oh, you don’t know how to do your job. You’re stupid!’
It upset her so much she broke down in tears on the train home, says Jon.
Anna Gerrard is an organizer with the Retail Action Network. She says retail workers have zero job security and make so little that getting fired is a personal catastrophe. It all takes a heavy toll on their mental health, she says.
“Seeing all this, we’re advocating for job protection to be enshrined in the Employment Standards Act,” says Gerrard, “so that if people do need to take a mental health day, they can without being afraid of losing their jobs.”
Gerrard asks everyone to remember we really are all in this together.
“So we have to remember that the people serving your tables, the people helping you in the change room are not invisible. They’re not separate from this; they’re going through it just like you are.”
Workers stand up down under
Would you talk to your mum that way? That’s the question retail workers in Australia want customers to ask themselves before hurling abuse at them.
Workers from Woolworths, Target and other retailers in Australia wear a badge that identifies them as someone’s father, mother, brother or sister. The idea is to get shoppers to treat the store workers the way they would treat family—even during a dispute.
“The idea of the badges is to humanise the person behind the counter, so the customer sees them as a person rather than somebody just processing their sale,” says Shop Distributive and Allied Employees’ Association (SDA) spokesman Bernie Smith. “The badges are meant to make people think twice.” It seems to work.
The union says there has been a 44% decline in the number of incidents involving irate customers since the introduction of the secondary badge in 2019.
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