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COVID-19 rules, pandemic fatigue raise workplace violence risk

Posted On: Mar. 2, 2022 7:00 AM CST

workplace violence

Disneyland has lifted its mask mandate for vaccinated visitors, and Target stores will not require masks whatsoever. Some cities, states and individual businesses are keeping their mask mandates in place, while others toss them aside. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday relaxed its mask guidance for most parts of the country.

Meanwhile, COVID-19 vaccine requirements remain an issue, with mandates in effect in at least half a dozen cities.

Running parallel to headlines over the past year on changing mandates are those chronicling violence against workers charged with enforcing the rules. A Seattle bartender was attacked with a sharpened broomstick over a request to see a patron’s vaccine card. A restaurant hostess in New York was attacked over a similar request. And retail workers and flight attendants reportedly face near-daily confrontations over consumers refusing to mask up.

The patchwork of mask and vaccine rules across jurisdictions and businesses spells trouble for those working in public-facing jobs, in such sectors as restaurant and retail, who are facing belligerent consumers tired of the pandemic policies, according to workplace safety and workers compensation experts. As COVID-19 infection rates ebb and flow, so do the mandates increasing the likelihood of confrontations with a pandemic-frustrated public, they say.

“It is important to understand what is driving these temperament issues. … People don’t like change, and we have changed very rapidly,” said Sean Ahrens, Chicago-based security practice leader at Affiliated Engineers Inc., which assists clients with security programs. “There are stressors that are causing this.”

“The various mask mandates across the United States have created unintended problems for employers, especially in retail,” said Ronald Taylor, partner chair of Venable LLP’s Maryland Labor and Employment Practice Group in Baltimore.  “There are customers who are adamant about not wanting to wear a mask ... and retailers have had to train their employees to deal with antagonistic customers.”

Two-thirds of retail industry loss prevention professionals surveyed by the National Retail Federation in 2021 said the pandemic increased risks for their organization, with 61% saying workplace violence tops the list of threats.

The issue not only touches on workplace safety but workers compensation, too. And while anti-workplace violence training, which includes identifying threats and de-escalation techniques, was once considered fringe in such industries with high turnover, that’s no longer the case, experts say.

The “COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need for employers to take effective measures to reduce risk for workers,” Jessica Martinez, Los Angeles-based co-executive director of the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health wrote in an email. “Every employer has a legal and moral responsibility to provide a safe workplace free from recognized hazards, which certainly includes the hazards of workplace violence.”

Some argue workplace violence training falls in line with general duty clause requirements set by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, according to Michael Johnson, Arlington, Virginia-based CEO of Clear Law Institute, which provides online training on workplace violence prevention and COVID-19 workplace safety training for numerous larger retailers.

“This is a known threat. We know from the news that there have been violent incidents, so it’s incumbent on the employers to train their employees,” he said.