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Mask, Social Distancing Disputes Are Putting Workers at Risk

By David Boehrer | Posted on August 05, 2020

Customers refusing to wear masks and practice social distancing measures are creating dangers in the workplace. Employees are put at risk for COVID-19 infections, as well as personal injuries from unruly customers who refuse to take safety precautions.

Safety Disputes in the Workplace

The COVID-19 pandemic has taken a major toll on businesses across the country with mandated closures, loss of employees, and loss of revenues. As businesses begin to slowly reopen under strict safety guidelines, many are now facing a new problem with angry customers who are refusing to wear masks and practice social distancing measures. In retail establishments like department stores and restaurants where workers interact with customers, workers are facing belligerent customers who are acting out with aggressive tactics like yelling and screaming, damaging merchandise, and physical fights.

Currently, more than 40 states have enacted orders that mandate wearing face masks in public places. On June 24, Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak mandated that all Nevada residents and visitors must wear face coverings while in public spaces including hotels, casinos, and private businesses to slow the spread of COVID-19. The state’s largest economic resource, the gaming industry, was among the first to adopt a universal requirement for masks in all casinos. In Nevada, especially in high tourist areas, Henderson workers comp lawyers have seen a large number of claims and lawsuits related to workplace-related COVID-19 illnesses where employees have direct contact with customers.

Escalating Violence Puts Workers at Risk

Mandated safety regulations have resulted in businesses and employees becoming enforcers of COVID-19 safety within the workplace. Many workers are being injured by violent customers who are asked to put on their masks and practice social distancing. News reports and social media posts are filled with violent outbursts by customers who refuse to follow safety protocols.

Restaurant and grocery store workers are increasingly bearing the brunt of opposition to angry and violent customers who refuse to wear a mask in public. In Colorado, a Waffle House employee was shot and wounded by an angry customer when he was refused service because he would not put on a face mask in the restaurant. In Oklahoma City, a customer opened fire on McDonald’s workers who told her the restaurant was currently closed.

Retail store workers have experienced a number of violent attacks from angry customers over mask and social distancing disputes. At a South Florida Walmart, an angry customer pulled a gun on another customer over a mask dispute. In another Walmart location, a customer was arrested for assaulting a police officer with his car after being asked to leave the store because he refused to put on a mask. In Flint, Michigan, a Family Dollar security guard was shot and killed after telling a customer that her child had to wear a mask to enter the store, per a statewide order. Another Michigan incident left a 77-year-old customer dead after he was shot by another customer who refused to put on a mask.

Walmart recently announced its official policy requiring all shoppers to wear masks after a number of violent disputes occurred in their stores. Since then, a number of other retailers including CVS, Target, Kohl’s, and Kroger have followed suit. To protect workers, the National Retail Federation is urging all retail establishments to set their own mask and social distancing policies, rather than waiting for federal and state agencies to issue mandates.

For many people, wearing a face mask and practicing social distancing has become a political issue linked to infringement on personal rights, rather than COVID-19 safety protocols. However, employees who deal with retail customers should not bear the burden of enforcing store safety measures at the risk of their own personal safety.

Rising Injury Claims and Lawsuits

In the wake of COVID-19 safety disputes in businesses, Henderson workers’ comp lawyers have witnessed a rise in workers’ compensation claims and personal injury lawsuits around the country. Companies that assume the responsibility of training their employees to take specific actions in the event of customer violence could face liability for injuries caused by violent customers. To maximize employee safety, it is not advisable for employers to conduct de-escalation training programs for workers. Businesses that can’t afford regular security guards should consult local law enforcement agencies for assistance.

To prevent employee injuries, deaths, and rising lawsuits, employees should not be forced to confront angry customers over masks and social distancing disputes, or feel like it’s part of their job to enforce COVID-19 safety regulations. OSHA encourages employers to develop and implement violence prevention programs. Employees should not attempt to apprehend resistant customers, block customers from entering or exiting the store, or attempt to physically force customers to leave. This is likely to escalate an aggressive or violent situation and put the employee at higher risk for serious injuries, even death.

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