“I think with the pandemic, people are more desperate,” said Luan Ta, a manager of an American Eagle located in the Deptford Mall in Deptford, NJ. “People lost their jobs, they can’t get their job back, so by any means, they’re [trying to get] stuff for their kids.”
“I’ve been working here for four years but I’ve been working in retail for close to 10 years,” he said.
About once a week, Ta is finding that people who are attempting to steal are the main people harassing sales associates, which has been escalating in the recent years of the pandemic.
According to the National Retail Federation (NRF), in August 2021, “Organized retail crime and numerous other security concerns evolved in 2020, and most retailers attribute the increase in criminal activity to the pandemic.”
The NRF found that 69% of retailers said the “pandemic resulted in an increase in overall risk for their organization.”
Workplace violence was specifically mentioned.
More than 60% of retailers reported that organized retail crime (ORC) gangs were showing “higher levels of aggression and violence.” A few of the top cities included Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.
Not all instances involve ORC.
Cat Eak has been working as a manager at Charlotte Russe in the Deptford Mall for four weeks. Eak said there have been three major issues since she has started.
One day, a customer had allegedly walked past Eak and an associate a few times without being greeted. Eak quickly apologized but the woman demanded the phone number to contact corporate and any other useful numbers.
Eak gave the woman the numbers but claims the woman kept “going off,” causing the sales associate to also become agitated.
“The customer ended up calling [the associate] a ‘Karen’ with her phone out recording her,” Eak said.
After the two continued going back and forth, Eak said someone had to go. The sales associate began looking for security, but by chance, there wasn’t any security to help. Eak walked the customer out saying she had to “be the manager.”
To Eak’s knowledge, none of the associates or managers have been physically assaulted, but are “assaulted verbally all the time.”
In a survey with 4,300 workers, by Our Fair Wage, 39% of workers were leaving, or already left their job because of concerns with “hostility and harassment from customers.” The survey was conducted between October 2020 and May 2021.
Our Fair Wage also found that 80% of employees “experienced or witnessed hostile behavior from customers” when staff tried enforcing COVID-19 safety measures. Overall, 49% experienced it weekly.
Almost 50% “experienced or witnessed a noticeable change in overall levels of unwanted sexualized comments from customers,” Our Fair Wage stated.
At the Journeys in the Deptford Mall, one of the managers stated that one of their associates, who is a minor, regularly gets harassed by men.
Not all of the harassment comes from customers.
Hunter Hansen, another manager at Journeys, experienced harassment from someone trying to apply in 2019 when he worked at a Journeys location in Virginia.
Someone called about their application and a sales lead answered the phone before shortly putting him on hold as she wasn’t sure how to answer his questions. One of the managers asked the sales lead to take down his name and number so they could contact him at a later time because the store was busy that day.
The applicant became angry and started cursing at the sales lead, then hung up on her.
Hansen called the applicant back, but it became a “screaming fit.”
“He yelled at me about how ‘this isn’t supposed to be how you treat applicants’ or whatever,” Hansen said.
Hansen replied, “this is not how you apply for a job.”
The applicant’s father then spoke on the phone, telling Hansen not to “parent” his son.
“They both came into the store, and I knew it was them immediately because they came in pissed,” Hansen said. After he greeted them, the father-son duo recognized his voice and things began to escalate.
“We both just started yelling at each other, and the dad got right up to my face, and was just screaming and calling me ignorant and a lot of other different [profanities] and whatnot,” Hansen said. Nothing more became of the situation after giving the father the district manager’s number.
“With the size and scope of these threats continuing to grow, it is clear retailers need support from additional external resources,” the NRF said.
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