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Retailers are reporting rising incidents of theft as regulators aim to make workplaces safe from violence — two facets of business life that caused much haggling in California over a pending bill that would have made it illegal for retailers to require workers to stop shoplifters.
S.B. 553, as amended by the California Assembly on Friday, no longer contains that provision but would require businesses to have anti-violence strategies. The change was made as a result of a “collaboration” between lawmakers and businesses, according to a spokesman for bill sponsor Sen. Dave Cortese, who did not comment on why one of the bill’s most controversial proposals was removed.
The California Retailers Association, which did not respond to requests for comment, spoke publicly against the measure, as did numerous business owners. Many said in media reports that barring employees — even trained security workers — from stopping shoplifters would encourage more theft at a time when retail “shrinkage” is at record high numbers.
According to a 2022 survey of 63 retailers by the National Retail Federation, stores lost $94.5 billion in 2021 through shrinkage, or loss of inventory due to a number of factors, with outside theft as the predominant cause.
Organized retail theft – such as when bands of shoplifters coordinate theft and act in rings — was up 26.5% in 2021 from 2020, the survey found. Eighty percent of retailers surveyed reported that the violence and aggression associated with organized incidents increased in the past year.
A number of national retailers, while reporting dips in earnings earlier this year, cited this rise in shoplifting as one reason for the declines.
Given the rise in organized theft and resulting violence in stores, safety professionals said worker safety should be paramount.
“From our perspective of employee safety, we would recommend a hands-off approach — especially when it comes to these organized rings,” said Kenna Carlsen, a Gainesville, Florida-based researcher with the National Safety Council. “They will, in a lot of instances, use threats of violence, weapons or intimidation tactics.”
Unless a worker comes from a security or loss-prevention background, where they are trained in de-escalation and understand how to approach individuals, hands-off is the most appropriate response, Ms. Carlsen said.
Several retailers contacted said they could not comment on their policies toward shoplifters. According to the National Retail Association survey, 37.5% of respondents said employees are not allowed to intervene in shoplifting.
Mark Walls, Chicago-based vice president of client engagement at workers comp insurer Safety National Casualty Corp., said the issue is complicated for retailers, many of which already have policies in place that prohibit workers from intervening when they spot a shoplifter.
Mr. Walls noted widely reported incidents in which employees have been fired for approaching a shoplifter. Retailers have also faced lawsuits following incidents in which shoplifters have been detained by retail establishments but not charged, he added.
Retailers lobbied against the California anti-violence bill because “they want the option to have security,” Mr. Walls said. “The bill would have prohibited them from having any security at all. …. Some of these places have designated security. So that's why they opposed it, because then you literally couldn't have any security.”