Understanding the Changing Face of Workplace Violence

  • In June 2020, as a result of the concern over increasing COVID-19 cases, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued an Executive Order that required all Californians to wear face coverings while in public: while shopping, taking public transit and seeking medical attention.

Almost immediately, face covering issues became part of the cultural/political divide, as some customers and clients violently refused to acquiesce to the requirement before entering retail businesses.

With new requirements for patrons come new enforcement requirements for employers. In many instances, employers find themselves in the awkward position of requiring their patrons to wear masks and practice social distancing. In California and nationwide, numerous reports of violent encounters with customers, client and visitors have emerged.

Federal OSHA recognizes four separate categories of workplace violence, each of which will be discussed in detail later in this chapter.

  • Type I — The agent has no legitimate relationship to the workplace and usually enters to commit a robbery or other criminal act. Most recent statistics report that this represents the largest category of workplace violence (by number of incidents).
  • Type II — The agent is either the recipient or object of a service provided by the affected workplace or the victim. This type includes current and former patients, clients, customers, passengers, criminal suspects and prisoners.
  • Type III — The agent has an employment-related involvement with the workplace. This typically materializes as a current or former employee attempting to assault or commit some other violence against a coworker, supervisor or manager.
  • Type IV — The agent has no direct relationship to the workplace, but typically is an employee's current or former spouse, lover, relative or friend.

Violence on the part of patrons who refuse to wear face coverings falls into the Type II category of workplace violence; type II violence is perpetrated by an employer's customers, clients and patients. When employees are asked to enforce such mandates, how can they be protected from violence?

Have a COVID-19 Plan

  • At this point, many employers already have developed a COVID-19 response plan. For many, however, violence hasn't been an element in this plan. If your workplace regularly receives customers, clients, patients or visitors, make sure your COVID-19 plan:
  • Sets Patrons’ Expectations. Post notices at your business' entrances that face coverings are required. A percentage of patrons will have forgotten their covering and will return to their cars to retrieve it. Another percentage will be frustrated and decide not to enter. And a third percentage will decide to enter, fully informed of what is expected of them.
  • Regularly Reminds Patrons. Strategically place face covering reminder notices, at eye level, throughout the workplace. This will serve to remind patrons and employees of the workplace expectations.
  • Maintains and Broadcasts a Consistent Message. Add a recorded message for incoming calls that informs callers of the business' compliance with the state mandated requirement for face coverings and requests that patrons do so as well. Post a banner with the same information on your website and any social media channels you utilize.
  • Trains Employees. Employees will be required to help enforce the face covering requirement, yet they lack both the authority and training to do so effectively. For this reason, make sure employees make requests/appeals of patrons as opposed to issuing orders (“Sir, we're doing all we can to account for the safety of all customers and employees; can I get you to put on a face covering?” versus, “Sir, a face mask is required for entry; you must put one on or leave."