Pandemic bullies: Unruly customers are making work life miserable for service sector staff

A year ago, I reported on how some customers were taking out their pandemic-related frustrations via terrible treatment of service-sector workers (link here). The situation appears to be worsening. As America and other countries are emerging from pandemic lockdowns, stories of customer abuse of workers in restaurants, commercial airline flights, and other venues are multiplying. These working conditions appear to be contributing to staffing shortages in the retail sector, in particular.

I want my food, NOW

For example, as reported by Neil Vigdor for the New York Times (link here), one Cape Cod, Massachusetts restaurant closed for a day to support workers who were experiencing repeated verbal abuse from entitled customers:

The verbal abuse from rude customers got so bad, the owners of one farm-to-table restaurant on Cape Cod said, that some of their employees cried.

The final indignity came last Thursday, when a man berated one of the restaurant’s young employees for telling him that they could not take his breakfast takeout order because the restaurant had not opened yet, said Brandi Felt Castellano, the co-owner of Apt Cape Cod in Brewster, Mass.

“I never thought it would become this,” she said.

So Ms. Felt Castellano and her spouse, Regina Felt Castellano, who is also the head chef and co-owner, announced on Facebook that the restaurant would close for part of that same day to treat the restaurant’s employees to a “day of kindness.”

…“It’s like abuse,” she said. “It’s things that people are saying that wouldn’t be allowed to be on TV because they would be bleeped. People are always rude to restaurant workers, but this far exceeds anything I’ve seen in my 20 years.”

It’s getting rough up there

Air travel is another venue that is bringing out the worst in some customers. As Andrea Day and Chris DiLella report for CNBC (link here):

They’ve been cursed out, grabbed and even punched in the head.

Flight attendants are now speaking out publicly about the stress of managing increasingly unruly passengers at 35,000 feet, a job that’s gotten more difficult in recent months as passengers return to the skies after months of lockdowns.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced flight attendants to enforce federal rules requiring masks on planes, a mandate that’s touched a political nerve for many Americans and led to a rise in bad behavior onboard.

“It’s definitely out of control,” said flight attendant Matthew Cook, one of two flight attendants who agreed to speak to CNBC on the record as long as their employer wasn’t identified. “I have apprehensions [about] going to work every day. I have a lot of anxiety.”

Most flight attendants have kept quiet about the rise of unruly passengers out of fear of retaliation by their employers.

Some readers may have been around long enough to remember the old saying, the customer is always right. It was a slogan used by retail managers to exhort their employees to make customer satisfaction their highest priority. Okay, so while we’re all appreciative of good service, in truth the customer isn’t always right, and these various instances of bullying, incivility, and violence are proving so. 

Voting with their feet

It appears that many workers are voting with their feet. As Mary Meisenzahl reports for Business Insider (link here), abusive customers are combining with low pay and better opportunities elsewhere to create major staffing shortages in the retail sector:

Some workers are leaving retail and restaurant jobs to get away from low pay and difficult customers, and a growing number of openings in the labor market is making it easier to transition to new careers.

…Hiring has been difficult for many companies, which have reported a lack of candidates for open positions. But retail and restuarants are are also struggling to retain workers who want to leave for new opportunities.

…Another Starbucks employee said after a dangerous and difficult year because of the pandemic, fatigue and treatment are top concerns. “Employees have been fired or people are quitting because we’re so overworked and stressed and abused,” an employee at a Midwest Starbucks told Insider.

A Louisiana barista echoed the same complaints.  The “handful [of customers] that you get each day who will berate or abuse you can take a drastic toll on your mental well being,” he told Insider.

Research says so, too

Those who question whether customer abuse impacts employee attrition can look at this 2019 study conducted by University of British Columbia researchers that establishes the link. As reported in ScienceDaily (link here):

…In fact, studies have shown that dealing with problematic customers can lead to emotional exhaustion, negative moods, poorer physical health, reduced performance and lower job satisfaction.

But does it also lead to higher employee turnover?

According to a new study led by the UBC Sauder School of Business in collaboration with the UBC-Okanagan Faculty of Management, the University of Illinois, and the University of Queensland in Australia, customer conflict plays a big role when it comes to workers saying “I quit” — and how supervisors manage that conflict helps decide whether employees stay or go.

…Even when controlling for other factors that would lead a worker to throw in the towel — factors including low pay, long hours and poor working conditions — the researchers found a significant link between customer mistreatment and employee quit rates.

“We were able to predict who was going to quit based on their experience of customer mistreatment and emotional exhaustion. You can see it coming,” says UBC Sauder School of Business professor Danielle van Jaarsveld, lead author of the study.

“It starts accumulating, and eventually you hit the wall and say, ‘I’ve got to look for another job.’ Because if you don’t find a way to replenish those emotional resources, they deplete and you’ve got nothing left,” says study co-author and UBC Sauder School of Business professor Daniel Skarlicki.

Kindness, employer support, unions

How can we address this disturbing uptick in worker mistreatment by customers? At least three points come to mind:

First, we can all hold ourselves accountable. Kindness, understanding, and practicing the Golden Rule go a long way, including when we’re at a restaurant or store or in an airplane. And if you see something, say something. Bystander intervention counts for a lot.

Second, employers need to support their workers, like the co-owners of that Cape Cod restaurant did with their day of kindness for their staff. Abusive customers are never in the right.

Third, we need more unions in the service sector to help safeguard workers from mistreatment, regardless of the source. Collective bargaining helps to hold employers accountable for taking care of their employees.

 

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic?

Second shot came 3 weeks later!

What will America’s world of work look like as we emerge from the pandemic? Now that vaccination numbers are up, new infections and COVID-19 fatalities are down, and businesses and cultural institutions are re-opening, it’s time to generate discussions about the future of work, workers, and workplaces during the months and years to come. 

Bullying and harassment

First, bullying, mobbing, and harassment at work — key topics for this blog — won’t be going away any time soon. As I reported last month, the Workplace Bullying Institute’s 2021 national scientific survey revealed that, during the pandemic, a lot of bullying behaviors simply migrated to online platforms such as Zoom. Furthermore, individuals of Asian descent have been targeted for racial harassment due to the apparent origins of the coronavirus in China. Also, retail workers across the country have been verbally abused and physically assaulted by out-of-control customers who disagreed with mask and public safety requirements. In short, while this pandemic has brought out the best in some people, it also has brought out the worst in others.

The face-to-face workplace

Second, we’re going to see a somewhat clunky and varied transition back to working in face-to-face office settings again. Some workers can’t wait to get back to the office, while others have found themselves working effectively — and more contentedly — at home. Employers have experienced differing productivity levels with people working remotely, and some have been re-evaluating their need for large office spaces. We may see greater reliance on hybrid approaches that mix-and-match working from home and coming into the office when necessary.

Restaurant recoveries?

Third, many retailers, especially those in the restaurant and food service industry, are going to be in recovery mode. For example, will the pre-pandemic fondness that many Americans have for eating at restaurants return as vaccinations and improved ventilation systems make indoor dining safe possibilities? Fingers crossed that these industries will make robust comebacks!

Frontline workers

Fourth, millions of essential frontline workers have been putting themselves in harm’s way to stock shelves, operate cash registers, produce and deliver goods and packages, and perform countless other tasks to help keep our society going during this time. Will a grateful nation reward them with higher pay, better benefits, and stronger job security? It’s anyone’s guess as to whether that will occur.

Women bear the brunt

Fifth, the labor market impacts of this pandemic have been very gendered, with more women than men bearing the brunt of caregiving at home for children and the ill. While it may be premature to assess how this will effect current generations of women workers in the long term, the short-term impact has been palpable and threatens to endure.

Health care workers

Sixth, health care workers across the country who have been treating COVID-19 patients face trauma, exhaustion, and burnout from working long hours under the most difficult circumstances. They have been in the trenches of this war against the virus, and many have paid a price in terms of their physical and emotional health. We owe them a debt of gratitude, which includes providing all necessary measures to support them as they recover from this ordeal.

Ch-ch-changes

Seventh, we may witness a stream of career transitions, job changes, and early retirements, the cumulative results of individual and family contemplations about their lives during this long period of semi-quarantine. As I wrote in my personal blog over the weekend:

The pandemic appears to have prompted a lot of self-reflection among middle-aged folks during the past year or so, and the results of these inner dialogues are starting to emerge. More and more we’re hearing about career and job shifts, accelerated retirement timelines, moves to places near and far, changes in personal relationships, new hobbies and avocations, and more active pursuits of “bucket list” plans.

This stuff is popping up in everyday conversations, Facebook postings, and news features about life transitions in the shadow of COVID-19. I don’t know if it’s a temporary blip on the screen or the beginning of some major social ground shifting, but for now the phenomenon is real.

Haves and have-nots

Finally, the pandemic has exacerbated the divide between the haves and have-nots. Those who could work remotely and safely, watch their retirement accounts grow amidst a strong stock market, and take advantage of generous, employer-provided health care plans are coming out of this pandemic in pretty good shape. Those who lost their jobs, tapped into meager savings, and have struggled to obtain needed health care have found themselves increasingly reliant on special safety net measures enacted by the federal government. This is among the reasons why I hope that the Biden Administration’s proposals to create millions of jobs with good wages and benefits to help repair our nation’s crumbling infrastructure and build a healthy green economy are enacted. 

These points raise but a few of the compelling matters related to the post-pandemic future of work in America. In all, they highlight persistent challenges of opportunity, equality, and worker dignity that existed before this virus transformed our lives. Accordingly, I hope that we, as a society, will take the high road in prioritizing the needs of those who have struggled the most during one of the most challenging times in our history.

How would you feel if your boss had a betting pool on how many workers would contract COVID-19?

We’re seeing plenty of instances of how the coronavirus pandemic is bringing out the best and the worst of us, and here’s another bellringer example of the latter: Last year, seven managers at a Tyson pork processing plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were fired in the wake of accusations that they created a betting pool on how many of their employees would contract COVID-19. As reported by Sarah Al-Arshani for Business Insider (link here):

Tyson Foods fired seven management employees at a Waterloo, Iowa, pork plant following an independent investigation into allegations that managers bet money on how many workers would catch the virus during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

…The accusations came about after the discovery of an amended court document in the wrongful death lawsuit of Isidro Fernandez, a Tyson meatpacking worker who died of COVID-19 in April.

One of the fired managers defended the betting pool as a “morale boost” for exhausted managers, as reported by Ryan Foley for the Associated Press (link here):

Don Merschbrock, a former night manager at the plant in Waterloo, Iowa, said he was speaking in an attempt to show that the seven fired supervisors are “not the evil people” that Tyson has portrayed.

…The office pool involved roughly $50 cash, which went to the winner who picked the correct percentage of workers testing positive for the virus, Merschbrock said. He added that those involved didn’t believe the pool violated company policy and thought the plant’s positivity rate would be lower than the community rate due to their mitigation efforts.

“It was a group of exhausted supervisors that had worked so hard and so smart to solve many unsolvable problems,” Merschbrock said. “It was simply something fun, kind of a morale boost for having put forth an incredible effort. There was never any malicious intent. It was never meant to disparage anyone.”

The wrongful death lawsuit that outed the betting pool account alleges that Tyson managers had downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic and covered up a COVID-19 outbreak so that workers would continue to report for their shifts. As further reported by Sarah Al-Arshani:

According to the lawsuit, some managers were demanding that sick employees come into work, and one employee, who vomited on the production line, was made to return to work the following day. 

The lawsuit also alleged that managers gave out $500 “thank you bonuses” to employees who worked all of their scheduled shifts for three months, and warned workers not to discuss COVID-19 while at work. 

Of course, the most serious concerns pertain to the actual health and safety of the workers, and it appears the Tyson has a lot to answer for on those points. The allegations reflect narratives as old as the history of wage labor: Pressuring workers to produce under unhealthy and life threatening conditions. They remind us of the muckraking work of journalist Upton Sinclair in the early 1900s, when he exposed horrific working conditions in the meatpacking industry in his novel The Jungle.

In addition, the betting pool reveals another level of disturbing management dehumanization of its own employees, one that goes beyond the immediate pressures of keeping production going under trying circumstances. To describe the bets as “something fun, kind of a morale boost,” while denying any malicious intent, simply doesn’t add up. It’s quite sick and twisted, and it doesn’t reflect well upon Tyson’s practices for hiring managers.

***

Hat-tip to Alayna Cohen for originally flagging this story for me.

January 6, 2021: Workplace violence of Constitutional proportions in Washington D.C.

Screenshot from the Washington Post

Quite understandably, the January 6 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol Building is being framed largely in the context of America’s divisive political dynamics and the final days of the administration of Donald Trump. This was, after all, an unprecedented event, a violent occupation of one of the nation’s most important houses of government, at a time when the Congress was meeting to approve electoral votes for the next President and Vice President. It was preceded by a lengthy rally led by Trump and his minions, spurring members of white supremacist groups and conspiracy cults to storm the building, in an attempt to stop the Constitutional transfer of power inherent in every national election.

This event will rightly prompt a long and deep investigation, and many questions about how this could happen and what parties were responsible remain unanswered for now. True, the loss of life was minimal compared to other signature events threatening national security, such as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. However, this could’ve been much, much worse, with considerably higher fatality and casualty rates, hostage taking, and an extended occupation, had things transpired even a little differently.

I’d like to add another perspective on the Capitol attack, and that is to see it as a significant act of workplace violence, prompted by leaders who favor bullying and mobbing behaviors as ways of getting what they want. Anyone who is interested in preventing and responding to workplace violence should consider January 6 as a massive leadership, organizational, and systems failure and, quite possibly, corruption. I am confident that once we grasp the enormity of this event, it will become a case study of failed workplace violence prevention and response in public sector workplaces.

We also may eventually learn more about psychological trauma emerging from that day. It is likely that a good number of people who were lawfully in the building will experience post-traumatic symptoms. This includes elected officials, staff members, security personnel, media representatives, and others. Especially for them, working in that building may never again feel safe or secure.

It is no exaggeration that January 6, 2021 will be remembered as one of the most disturbing days in U.S. history. For those of us who study abuse, aggression, and violence in our workplaces, comprehending the events of that day will take on this added dimension.

Will “de-densifying” reduce workplace bullying, mobbing, and harassment in the COVID-transformed American workplace?

In a piece for The Guardian over the summer (link here), Cassidy Randall speculated on the future of American office life, as employers consider options for full or partial re-opening in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic:

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to surge in parts of the US, some companies have moved forward with plans to let their employees re-enter the office after months of working from home.

In the absence of federal guidelines around best practices, office managers will probably need to rely on an abundance of caution. This may turn offices into ghost towns of their former selves, with gatherings by the water cooler, big meetings and buzzing shared spaces disappearing for the foreseeable future.

Anticipating a possible uptick in infection rates during the fall, she emphasized the likelihood of “de-densifying” staffing patterns and staggered shifts to moderate the number of workers present in the office at any given time. This could mean, at least for now, the cessation of large, in-person staff meetings and crowded work areas.

The disturbingly stubborn rates of COVID-19 infections have no doubt caused many employers to continue to permit workers to spend parts or all of their week working from home. In some circles, this has raised the question of the necessity of maintaining large offices and on-site work requirements, even after we find our way through this pandemic. A prominent example of this revamping is Microsoft. As reported earlier this month by Tom Warren for The Verge (link here):

Microsoft is allowing more of its employees to work from home permanently, the company announced Friday. While the vast majority of Microsoft employees are still working from home during the ongoing pandemic, the software maker has unveiled “hybrid workplace” guidance internally to allow for far greater flexibility once US offices eventually reopen. The Verge has received Microsoft’s internal guidance, and it outlines the company’s flexible working plans for the future.

Microsoft will now allow employees to work from home freely for less than 50 percent of their working week, or for managers to approve permanent remote work. Employees who opt for the permanent remote work option will give up their assigned office space, but still have options to use touchdown space available at Microsoft’s offices.

Better work environments?

I’ve been looking at these assessments in part through a lens of whether the coronavirus-impacted work environment will affect prevalence rates and the nature of various types of workplace abuse. Back in May, I offered this preliminary forecast for when physical workplaces start to reopen:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

What I didn’t anticipate was the now very real possibility that some (many?) organizations may never return to the fully occupied physical workspaces that were the norm before the pandemic suddenly defined the contours of our lives.

To the extent that bullying, mobbing, and harassment are very relational activities, de-densifying via continued physical distancing and staggered employee shifts may help to reduce the prevalence of these forms of mistreatment. However, some of the bad behavior, as I mentioned, will simply port over to an online setting. After all, less-than-wonderful co-workers can be jerks on Zoom and scheme and manipulate in the digital fog. This could give rise to more covert forms of bullying, sabotaging, and undermining of others.

It’s also possible that, as I suggested in May, most people will try to rise above the fray, grateful to be employed, while recognizing that we should all bring a sense of team play to the current work situation.

For now, it’s too early to know whether these work-at-home practices will become a new normal. But this bears watching, especially by those of us who are attentive to the various ways in which workplace mistreatment may manifest itself.

Captain Ahab of “Moby-Dick”: Workplace trauma sufferer, bullying boss, or both?

If you’re even remotely familiar with Herman Melville’s classic novel, Moby-Dick (1851), then you may regard the Pequod‘s Captain Ahab as a mad, angry, and obsessed figure. After all, the novel is driven by Ahab’s relentless and rageful chase of the eponymous whale, seeking revenge for a grievous injury inflicted during an earlier encounter at sea. This obsession leads to Ahab’s undoing.

Earlier this year, I had an opportunity to consider Moby-Dick, via a fascinating online class offered by the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an independent school that offers non-credit courses in the humanities and social sciences. Taught by Dr. Rebecca Ariel Porte, “Moby-Dick: Reading the White Whale” was a four-week deep dive (ba dum) into this complex novel, examining it from a variety of literary and social perspectives. I had long wanted to read Moby-Dick, but previous efforts to do so on my own flamed out after a few chapters. I knew that I needed the prod of interactive class sessions to sustain my reading of the book. I am happy to report that the course was more than worth the effort, thanks to its brilliant instructor and a very smart group of fellow students.

Going into the course, I brought a hypothesis: Moby-Dick is, at least in part, a story of psychological trauma suffered by Capt. Ahab. During the course, I was stunned to read passages that, at least for me, vividly supported that hypothesis. I now submit that Herman Melville understood the guts and sinew of trauma, well before the acronym PTSD ever entered our nomenclature.

Indeed, Melville’s description of Ahab fits the profile of a trauma sufferer. Sprinkled throughout the novel, we are given these looks into Ahab’s mental state. Ahab, the narrator tells us multiple times, is a “monomaniac,” which one modern dictionary defines as “a person who is extremely interested in only one thing, often to such a degree that they are mentally ill.” In chapter 106, we learn how Ahab carries a deep sense of grievance linked back to the injury inflicted by the whale, including a subsequent mysterious “agonizing wound” that “all but pierced his groin.” In chapter 135, we are told that Ahab “never thinks; he only feels, feels, feels.”

Today, we know that Ahab’s mental state and behaviors are very consistent with psychological trauma. From Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s superb book about trauma, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (2014), we learn that research on brain functioning shows how trauma can shut down logical thinking capacities and hyper-activate the emotions. Those who have experienced traumatic events may relive and obsess over them.

I have seen this on many occasions with some targets of severe bullying and mobbing at work. They face enormous difficulties in getting “unstuck” from a state of rumination and anger. A few become fixated on obtaining some measure of justice, or perhaps vengeance. Like Ahab, they sometimes only feel, feel, feel.

Of course, frequent readers of this blog may also classify Ahab as a bullying boss, given the way he treats the Pequod‘s crew. That’s a fair characterization, too. One senses that the ship’s crew members are walking on eggshells around Ahab. They fear him and question his mental state.

But seen as a trauma sufferer, perhaps Ahab becomes at least a slightly more sympathetic figure. I was recently introduced to the phrase hurt people hurt people, and I think that applies here. Put simply, some abused individuals turn their pain outward and mistreat others.

Thankfully, our understanding of trauma far exceeds what we knew about it in the mid-1800s. Among other things, we now know that PTSD can be treated. Many of these treatment modalities are discussed in The Body Keeps the Score

I readily confess that my fiction reading has tended towards mysteries, tales of spies and suspense, and the occasional horror story. But reading Moby-Dick with the help of this course turned out to be a welcomed intellectual workout, one that yielded surprisingly relevant connections to my work. I also came away very impressed with how one iconic author had a remarkable 19th century understanding of trauma and its effects.

Can we use this challenging time to plant seeds of creativity and compassion?

Will the coronavirus pandemic prompt us toward creating a better society? Exploring this possibility for the New Yorker, author Lawrence Wright interviewed Gianna Pomata, a retired professor at the Johns Hopkins University’s Institute of the History of Medicine, about how the pandemic may shape our futures (link here). Dr. Pomata is an authority on, among other things, the history of the Black Plague of the Middle Ages.

Now living in Italy, one of the original hot zones for COVID-19 outbreaks, Pomata shared her historical perspective with Wright:

When we first talked, on Skype, she immediately compared covid-19 to the bubonic plague that struck Europe in the fourteenth century—“not in the number of dead but in terms of shaking up the way people think.” She went on, “The Black Death really marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of something else.” That something else was the Renaissance.

…“What happens after the Black Death, it’s like a wind—fresh air coming in, the fresh air of common sense.”

Although Pomata expressed shock over the resistance of so many Americans to follow basic public health precautions such as wearing masks, she sees the potential for a similar revitalizing response on a global level once we get through this pandemic:

“What I expect now is something as dramatic is going to happen, not so much in medicine but in economy and culture. Because of danger, there’s this wonderful human response, which is to think in a new way.”

This article has prompted me to look at pieces I’ve posted during the past few months, examining our current state and speculating as to how we will come out of this in terms of our basic humanity. I see within my own thinking both hope and doubt.

Work and workplaces

I’d love to see waves of kindness, compassion, and creativity overcome our workplaces in light of this pandemic, but the evidence for that transformation is not exactly overwhelming. In fact, it may be pointing in the other direction. Here’s what I recently wrote about those prospects: 

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

…Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier this month, the news is now peppered with stories of retail and fast food workers being bullied and assaulted by not-so-wonderful customers who are angered by mask requirements and limitations on inside dining. Apparently these folks are taking out their ignorance and frustrations on modestly paid service workers who are simply trying to do their jobs safely.

Now we’re also learning of more extensive efforts to leverage this pandemic in ways that exploit workers and expose them to greater harm, all in the name of squeezing out more profits. For a detailed account of one such instance, check out Jane Mayer’s recent investigative piece (also in the New Yorker, link here), which examines how a “secretive titan behind one of America’s largest poultry companies, who is also one of the President’s top donors, is ruthlessly leveraging the coronavirus crisis—and his vast fortune—to strip workers of protections.”

Our better natures

Still, on occasion we read of extraordinary efforts to keep businesses afloat and workers on the payroll. For example, European travel guru and writer Rick Steves, who has built a very successful business organizing guided tours to Europe and publishing a popular series of travel guidebooks (I’ve purchased my fair share of them!), is digging deep into his company’s cash reserves to keep his staff of 100 employed for the next two years. This involves pay cuts but will allow retention of health insurance coverage. (You can read more about his decision and planning in this Seattle Times article, here.)

And we also read accounts of remarkable creativity and flexibility practiced by small business owners. Recently ZAGAT Stories (link here) featured restauranteur Barbara Sibley, owner of La Palapa, a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood. (Full disclosure: My cousin Judy, mentioned in this piece, is a manager there, and I’ve made modest financial contributions toward Barbara’s efforts during this time. I’ve also eaten a lot of their food over the years!) Here’s a snippet:

I didn’t shut down, not even for a day, not even for a minute. The next day after lockdown I was here with Judy, my general manager who’s worked for me for over 15 years, and my chef. I’ve worked with his family since I was 19. Having been through all of those different experiences, there were things that I knew right away. First of all, you have to hold onto your cash. You have to take care of your people. The most important thing is to make payroll and make sure nobody’s starving, and then put what you have to good use.

So we started to feed hospitals. We made a donation to the Catholic Worker. We had all this bread. I was very conscious about which purveyors I was going to shop from. There were people that had been with me through other crises and helped me up. I was very mindful about taking care of them. If I was going to spend any money, I was going to spend it very thoughtfully.

…Then Bloomberg Philanthropies decided it was important that we feed the public hospitals, because private hospitals had donors and board members that wanted to do wonderful things for those. Bloomberg teamed up with World Central Kitchen. I ended up doing 2,000 or 3,000 meals a week for the city hospitals. It allowed me to keep everybody busy, and to have really fresh food at La Palapa because we were making all these meals.

Jury’s out

So, wearing my law professor’s hat, the jury is still out for me on whether our post-pandemic world will be a more enlightened one. After all, here in the U.S., we are still in the heart of this pandemic. While many other nations have managed to wrestle down this virus, we are witnesses to some of the most appalling ignorance and selfishness when it comes to undertaking preventive public health measures, and we have an alarming absence of competent, caring leadership at the head of state. In late May, I wrote here:

Here in the U.S.,…the past 40 years have served as a case study of what happens when power corrupts and values become distorted. The past few years have taken us much deeper down that rabbit hole. Between this terrible pandemic and the pending 2020 election, I feel as though we in America have one last chance to turn things around. I hope we will summon the wisdom and humanity to do so.

And yet we have people like Rick Steves and Barbara Sibley, working tirelessly to keep their businesses going, while looking out for the interests of their employees.

Folks, if humankind can come out of the utter carnage of the Black Plague to create the Renaissance, then we have the capacity to emerge from this pandemic with a vision for a much better world as well — including more creative work and more compassionate workplaces. That’s all the more reason to wear those masks, wash our hands, and stay socially distanced. After all, we’ve got work to do.

***

Note: This is adapted from a piece recently posted to my personal blog, Musings of a Gen Joneser (link here).

When workers are bullied and assaulted by customers

Here in the U.S., the coronavirus pandemic appears to be triggering outbreaks of angry, entitled customers taking out their frustrations on retail and fast food workers who are simply trying to comply with public health standards and work in relative safety. The abusive behaviors range from verbal bullying to physical assaults, typically in response to rules requiring customers to wear protective masks.

Two days ago, Universal Hub, a popular Greater Boston news site, posted a short item (link here) about a well-known Northampton, Massachusetts ice cream shop faced with enraged customers:

Herrell’s in the bucolic city of Northampton (started by Steve Herrell, yes, that Steve, and his wife) reports several incidents in which people got so, so mad when they were told to put on a mask or to take their cone to go – one even threw the cone at the server when told they couldn’t eat it inside. 

On their Facebook page, the ice cream shop shared more of the details:

We again have had a nasty visit from a ‘refuse to wear a mask’ person. His partner wore a 1/2 mask below her nose. She was asked not to eat in the store. He wasn’t served and asked to put on a mask or leave. He called our Masked Scooper hero an asshole.

Last week someone threw her paid for ice cream at my staff member because she was not allowed to eat in the store. Then earlier this week a person who was mad because she had to wait 15 minutes. Then finally, someone who planned to report us to consumer protection for Herrell’s refusing to serve them: no mask, no shoes. I said ‘ you do that’!

People THIS IS ONLY ICE CREAM SO, NO PUN INTENDED, CHILL!

Stories like this are popping up across the country, from local mom and pop stores to big-box retailers. (Go here, here, here, and here for more.) Lower-paid retail workers are usually the ones who face customers’ ire over observing and enforcing safety rules for the benefit of all.

I understand that these are trying and stressful times for just about everyone. Patience and basic manners may sometimes be wearing thin. But this is no excuse for bullying and assaulting workers who are helping to re-open our economy and restore some semblance of normalcy to our lives, often in return for very modest wages, while observing smart public health practices. 

It’s a lesson for us all. Let’s not take out our frustrations on workers who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. Instead, let’s be grateful that we can safely buy an ice cream cone in the midst of a global pandemic.

Coronavirus: What can we expect in terms of workplace bullying, incivility, and conflict as we reopen our physical workspaces?

(image courtesy of clipart.email)

With various plans, policies, and discussions addressing the critical question of how we reopen our economic and civic society in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, faithful readers of this blog may be especially interested in how these measures will affect interpersonal behaviors as people start returning to their physical workspaces.

I hope that our better natures will prevail. Perhaps the fears and ravages of a deadly virus affecting our health and lives, the economy, the state of employment, and the viability of our various civic, cultural, and educational institutions are humbling us and causing us to treat one another with greater understanding and care. Maybe we’ll see less bullying, mobbing, harassment, and incivility, as people welcome the return of some semblance of normalcy.

Furthermore, as I wrote earlier, I hope that more employers will find ways to pay all of their employees a living wage. After all, many of us have been able to shelter-at-home in large part due to the service rendered by a lot of workers who haven’t been earning much money.

Then again, it’s not as if bad workplace behaviors have disappeared during the heart of this pandemic. The news has been peppered with accounts of alleged worker mistreatment, especially that in retail, warehouse, and delivery employment. Many of these reports involve claims that management is strong-arming employees to show up to work without providing adequate protective gear or other safeguards. We’ve also seen an unfortunate and sharp uptick in harassment of people of Asian nationalities, linked to the origins of the virus in China.

So maybe my hopes for a great enlightenment are somewhat unrealistic.

In any event, I’m willing to make some mild forecasts about the workplace climate as we start to reopen physical workspaces:

First, I expect that most folks will be on their best behavior, at least initially. They will understand that we’re still in challenging times and be grateful to have paid employment.

Second, I think that various clashes, disagreements, and conflicts will arise, as a result of a mix of employer policies and heightened anxiety levels. Best intentions notwithstanding, a lot of folks will be on edge, and understandably so.

Third, I suspect that a lot of conflicts, incivilities, and micro-aggressions will move online, as we continue to conduct a lot of our work remotely and digitally. A barrage of email and text exchanges will accompany these transitions back to our workspaces. Some will get contentious; a (hopefully) much smaller share will be abusive.

Fourth, we may see a (welcomed, in my opinion) upturn in labor union organizing on behalf of our lowest paid workers in retail and service industries, many of whom have been the core of our essential workforce outside of health care providers. 

Finally, we’ll see coronavirus-related claims over disability discrimination, workers’ compensation, family and medical leave, workplace safety and health laws, and other legal standards related to worker health. Things could get quite litigious if managed poorly.

Can Amazon Prime members compel Amazon to treat its workers with greater dignity?

For many years, I boycotted Amazon Prime because of how Amazon treats its warehouse workers. But eventually I returned when I wanted access to Prime video and to be able to send gifts — especially books — with reliable delivery dates. I try to limit my Amazon spending to those categories and to ordering used books through associated vendors. But especially as someone who hasn’t owned a car for over 30 years, sometimes it’s awfully easy to click an order for the sake of convenience.

Nevertheless, Amazon’s labor practices remain disturbing, and yes, I feel guilty when I click that order. You see, it remains that the convenience that we experience as consumers comes at the expense of warehouse workers who have hard, exhausting, unsafe jobs in return for low pay. If you doubt me, then click here, here, here, and here for more details.

Ultimately, widespread unionization of Amazon workers is the key to improving their working conditions and compensation. But Amazon is virulently anti-union (e.g., here, here, and here), and workers who talk up unionization do so at their own risk.

So what is to be done? Well, Jobs With Justice, one of the nation’s best labor advocacy organizations for low-wage workers, is inviting we Amazon consumers to become voices for change, in the form of a new network called Prime Member Voices (link here). Here’s how they describe the network’s objectives:

Amazon Prime Members are a core part of the company’s business. Membership dues help fuel Amazon’s larger ambitions, but unfortunately many of those ambitions are in direct conflict with the issues we care passionately about. From truly horrific conditions inside Amazon Fulfillment Centers, to data collection, and selling technology to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and police departments.

As Prime Members, we should have a voice and it’s why Jobs With Justice is calling on Prime Members to join together in Prime Member Voices, where we can work together and develop ways where our voice is not only heard, but leads to real systemic change within the company.

It appears that the goals of Prime Member Voices will go beyond labor conditions, and personally I’m good with that. Amazon has been a game-changing entrant into the retail marketplace, and their business practices should be scrutinized closely from the standpoint of the public good.

In terms of concrete actions, this announcement is concededly vague. Regardless, this is a potentially brilliant organizing strategy: Leverage the many Prime members who would like to access Amazon’s convenient ordering and shipping, while knowing that the workers are being treated better and that the company’s business practices are ethical and socially responsible.

I’ve signed up. It’s worth seeing where this goes. At the very least, if I’m going to benefit from Amazon’s delivery systems, then I owe it to the rank-and-file employees to support better working conditions that affirm their dignity and well-being. It can happen only when people join together and call for change.

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