Retail workers increasingly fear for their safety

Store robberies have been increasing at a faster rate than the national average. Some workers are tired of fearing for their safety.

There was the client who stomped on a private security guard’s face. Then the one that caught fire inside a store. The one who drank gasoline and the one who brandished an axe. A drunk shopper who threw soup cans at a worker. A robber who hit a night manager twice in the head and then shot him in the chest.

And there was a shooting that killed 10 people, including three workers, at the King Soopers supermarket in Boulder, Colorado, in March 2021. Another shooting left 10 more dead at a Buffalo grocery store last month.

In her 37 years in the grocery industry, said Kim Cordova, president of a union in Colorado, she had never experienced the level of violence her members face today.

So when she was negotiating contracts for 21,000 grocery store workers in Colorado last winter, the usual wage and hour issues were certainly on the table. But just as critical, if not more so, was security.

“What happened to covid?” said Ms. Cordova, president of Local 7 of the United Food and Commercial Workers. “People have changed. Sometimes I wonder if I’m living in a Netflix movie. This can not be real.

The union negotiated a contract that guarantees workers the right to defend themselves if a customer attacks them. It’s a grim acknowledgment not only of the violence plaguing many facets of American society, but also of the growing unwillingness of retail employees to continue to turn the other cheek to crime in their stores.

During the early months of the pandemic, stores became tinderboxes for a society exhausted by lockdowns, protests and mask mandates. Many workers say the strain remains, even as pandemic tensions recede, and that they need more protections.

According to a New York Times analysis of FBI assault data, the number of assaults in many retail establishments has increased at a faster rate than the national average.

From 2018 to 2020, assaults overall increased 42 percent; they increased 63 percent at grocery stores and 75 percent at convenience stores. Of the more than two million assaults reported to the FBI by law enforcement agencies nationwide in 2020, more than 82,000, about 4 percent, occurred in shopping malls, convenience stores, and other similar places.

Last year, the FBI said, more than half of so-called active shooter attacks, in which an individual with a gun is killing or trying to kill people in a crowded area, occurred in places of commerce, including stores.

“Violence in and around retail establishments is definitely on the rise, and it’s a concern,” said Jason Straczewski, vice president of government relations and political affairs for the National Retail Federation.

Tracking down retail theft is more difficult because many prosecutors and retailers rarely file charges. Still, some politicians have seized on viral videos of brazen shoplifting to portray left-leaning city leaders as soft on crime. Others accused the industry of grossly exaggerating losses and warned that the thefts were being used as a pretext to roll back criminal justice reforms.

“These crimes deserve to be taken seriously, but they are also being weaponized ahead of the midterm elections,” said Jonathan Simon, a criminal justice professor at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

While the political debate revolves around the scope of crime and its causes, many of those who work in stores say that retailers have been too lenient on crime, particularly theft. Some employees want more armed security guards who can play an active role in stopping robberies, and they want more stores permanently overcrowding rowdy or violent customers, just as airlines have taken a hard line on unruly passengers.

Store employees have begun capturing episodes of violence, either against workers or between customers, on their phones in an effort to draw attention to the problem. A selection of videos was shared with The Times by a person who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from employers.

Stores, by their very design, can be a sink for society’s most serious challenges, such as homelessness and gun violence. And until those issues are resolved more broadly, it’s hard to strengthen spaces where the public is encouraged to roam freely and shop.

Crime is also a byproduct, in many ways, of the modern retailer’s business model, which arranges products out in the open in a spacious store to entice shoppers to buy more. Understaffing and increased automation have boosted profits but make it easier for crime to flourish, workers say.

“These criminals feel like they own the store,” said Tony Settles, a Safeway employee in downtown Denver. “The first thing that can fix this is accountability.”

Mr. Settles, 60, recently yelled at a man who jumped the customer service counter and stole cigarette cartons. The man cursed at him and then walked out of the supermarket unhindered.

Employees generally lose their jobs if they try to physically stop or confront a thief, a policy meant to protect them from harm. But this policy can seem like it invites more crime, said Mr. Settles, who is on the Local 7 executive board and has been trying to raise the alarm about employee safety and lobby for more safety.

“If an employee is caught stealing a candy bar, they are fired,” said Mr. Settles, who has worked in the grocery industry for 40 years. “But there are thieves who come here and steal a cart full of Tide. They leave and we tell them not to come back. But they come back a few days later.”

In a statement, Safeway said: “Protecting our associates and customers is our number one priority. For that reason, we only allow specially trained store personnel and security professionals to approach a suspected shoplifter.”

The statement added: “While acts of violence have increased across the country, we work closely with police departments to mitigate and address any threats of violence that may occur in and around our stores. The company also provides associate training designed to protect their safety, including active shooter training.”

Some workers say companies are slow to act when they point out a potentially dangerous customer. Eden Hill, who works at a Fred Meyer supermarket in Richland, Washington, said her colleagues had repeatedly warned management about a man spending hours in the store, especially talking to children. The store eventually banned it, but “it took months,” Hill, 21, said.

Still, he said, he didn’t worry too much about his own safety until a man walked into the store in February and shot and killed an Instacart worker and seriously injured a Fred Meyer employee.

After the shooting, Ms. Hill was so shaken that she needed her colleagues to walk her around the store. “I didn’t feel safe walking on the floor anymore,” she said.

Grocery store giant Kroger, which is owned by Fred Meyer, did not respond to requests for comment.

Some unions are requiring retailers to make official accommodations for employees experiencing anxiety about working with the public by finding them in-store positions where they don’t regularly interact with customers.

“My members are open targets,” Ms. Cordova said.

David Brokke, 30, who works in the produce department at Fred Meyer in Bellingham, Wash., said one of his tires slashed in the store’s parking lot a few months ago and the gas lines on the cars of his colleagues had been broken. cut while working.

Mr. Brokke had to take a day off sick to fix his tire and the company did not compensate him for the damage, he said. “I felt disrespected,” he said. “I was working for them, and this happened in their parking lot, and they don’t protect us.”

Kyong Barry, a front desk manager at Safeway in Auburn, Wash., has no qualms about confronting a rude customer, she said, but she’s terribly afraid of getting caught up in a mass shooting like the one in Buffalo last month.

“A lot of people are angry and frustrated and they take it out on the workers,” said Ms. Barry. “People are very sensitive right now. There is something in the air. It’s strange.”

She thinks the hands-off approach to theft is leading to a broader breakdown. Ms. Barry, 59, who has been working in the grocery industry for more than 20 years and is a member of the UFCW Local 3000, said she recently noticed regular customers walking out the door without paying for items.

“It’s like a disease,” he said. “When there are no consequences, some people think: Why should I pay if others don’t?”

Over the years, retailers have wavered between taking a hard line on thieves and unruly customers and letting them go.

When Tony Sheppard started out as a store detective for Montgomery Ward in Detroit in the 1990s, he wore handcuffs and had the authority to stop shoplifters. The next department store where he worked, in Boston, he had a cell where he could lock up suspected offenders.

“The industry took a hands-on approach back then,” said Sheppard, who is now a senior director at ThinkLP, a theft-prevention software firm. “But that could lead to legal problems if a suspect or bystander is injured.”

Punishments for retail shoplifting have been eased in recent decades in part to reduce incarceration rates. Many states now have a felony theft threshold of $1,000 or more, so even if a store reports a case of theft, some police departments may not make it a priority.

Retailers have attempted to impose civil penalties on shoplifters, essentially threatening to sue them to cover the value of the stolen merchandise. But big companies like Walmart discontinued that practice after it was revealed that the retailers were harassing falsely accused customers.

The industry says it is putting much of its focus on stopping organized rings of thieves reselling stolen goods online or on the street. They point to major cases like the recent indictment of dozens of people accused of stealing millions of dollars’ worth of merchandise from stores like Sephora, Bloomingdale’s and CVS.

But it is not clear how much of the crime is organized. Matthew Fernandez, 49, who works at King Soopers in Broomfield, Colo., said he was stunned when he saw a thief walk out with a cart full of makeup, laundry detergent and meat and drive off in a Mercedes-Benz SUV. .

“The ones you think are going to steal are not the ones doing it,” he said. “From the upper class to the lower class, everyone is doing it.”

Mrs. Barry often gives money to homeless people who come into her store so they can buy food. She also knows the financial pressures on people with lower incomes as the cost of living skyrockets.

When people steal, he said, the company can write off the loss. But those losses mean less money for workers.

“That’s part of my raise and the benefits of walking out the door,” he said. “That’s the money we deserve.”

Ella Koeze contributed report.

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