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At times, LeNair Xavier, a staffer at The Pleasure Chest, has felt unsafe at work.
“During my time at The Pleasure Chest, there have been instances in which both staffers and customers have been harassed, asked inappropriate questions, and approached in manners that made staffers fear for the safety of themselves and the customers alike,” he said.
When workers at the adult sex-toy shop in Greenwich Village unionized in 2017, one of their demands was for management to post a code of conduct inside the store, a request that was initially met with hesitation.
“What we need is accountability. Our employers need to take worker safety seriously,” Xavier said at a Thursday rally outside of Macy’s flagship store in Herald Square, where he and other labor advocates pushed for state lawmakers to pass legislation requiring retail businesses with at least 10 employees to put in place safeguards against workplace violence. “We do not come off a factory conveyor belt like much of the merchandise.”
This week, State Senator Jessica Ramos and Assemblymember Karines Reyes introduced the Retail Worker Safety Act, which would require businesses to conduct risk assessments to help mitigate potential violence in the workplace, and to provide workers with active shooter drills and training in violence prevention and de-escalation tactics.
“Retail workers are often on the frontline of dealing with many concurrent policy failures: the mental health crisis, poverty, and a lack of common-sense gun control,” Ramos said in a statement. “Union retail workers have the opportunity to negotiate for improved safety measures, and with this legislation we are hoping to extend that same level of safety to all retail workers.”
The legislators are also weighing a bill that would impose harsher penalties for attacks on retail workers. “As the Governor and the Legislature mull the possibility of stiffening criminal penalties for organized groups engaging in retail theft, we cannot miss the opportunity to comprehensively address this issue,” Reyes said.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said it was necessary to bring more attention to the threats retail workers face amid a surge in organized crime.
“We hear a lot these days about shoplifting and merchandise loss, and of course that is a problem. But today we are standing up and demanding that worker safety and especially their lives be valued at least as much as the merchandise they sell,” he said at the rally.
Violence on the rise
There has been an increase in harassment and attacks in retail settings since the pandemic; Appelbaum noted that twice as many people died in retail stores in 2022 than in 2016. He highlighted tragedies, including the May 2022 mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, and a 2021 shooting at Stop & Shop on Long Island that resulted in the death of the store manager.
The National Retail Federation found in its 2022 Retail Security Survey that eight out of 10 retailers reported increased violence, while a University of Iowa study of more than a 1,000 workers found that 60 percent of those surveyed said they’ve experienced workplace violence, with customer service being the occupation with the highest occurrence of violence on the job. The study also found that young workers and female employees were more likely to face harassment at work.
“Retail stores, because they are open to the public, are targets for everything, from racially motivated mass shootings to daily microaggressions that often lead to physical violence,” Appelbaum said. “Retail workers suffer the brunt of all of this. And yet they receive virtually no training on how to deal with shoplifters, how to de-escalate conflict or how to escape an active shooter. And that’s not right.”
The bill would also require some retailers to install panic buttons and to keep a record of incidents in the workplace.
Eileen Crosby, the retail director of RWDSU Local 1102, also believed it was important for businesses to establish minimum staffing standards so that workers won’t be forced to work by themselves.
“We know that employers are not doing enough to keep workers safe,” she said. “They spend insane amounts of money on asset protection, to protect the merchandise that they sell, when they need to be protecting the people who sell the merchandise, the people who stock the merchandise, the people who maintain the stores. We need this bill now.”
Steven Buckley, a sales specialist at the REI store in Soho, said workers there have been pushing for a first contract that includes safety and training provisions. He noted that he works in a basement with locked exits, from which many of his colleagues don’t know how to get out should an urgency arise.
“It is unacceptable that we have situations where workers have no idea of where to go in the event of an emergency,” he said.
Felix Ocasio, president of RWDSU Local 1, which represents workers at Macy's flagship location, added that retail workers "have the right to work each day and not worry about whether they will make it back home at the end of the day to their families."
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