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Preventing Physical and Verbal Covid-19 Workplace Violence

Sept. 23, 2020, 8:01 AM

As employers try to keep up with the torrent of changing requirements and expectations in light of Covid-19, an insidious workplace issue has arisen: the increased potential for pandemic-related workplace violence.

Scores of stories are recounting shootings, assaults, and other workplace violence against employees by customers across a variety of work environments—most often because of a customer’s refusal to abide by mask-wearing guidelines. Employees have been screamed at, spit on, slapped, and, in a few tragic worst-cases, killed simply for trying to enforce mask-wearing rules.

Aware of the negative and, sadly, sometimes violent reactions that mask-wearing and social distancing guidelines have provoked, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released guidance, “Limiting Workplace Violence Associated with COVID-19 Prevention Policies in Retail and Services Businesses.”

CDC Looks at Physical and Verbal Assaults

The CDC guidance is “intended for use by employers and employees in retail, services, and other customer-based businesses,” and contemplates a broad range of potential workplace violence that can come from “customers, other employees and employers.”

Included in its workplace violence definition are the obvious physical assaults along with threats and “verbal assault,” defined broadly to include words intended to cause “negative emotions of the person being assaulted.”

The CDC’s recommended actions to prevent workplace violence include:

  • advertising Covid-19 related policies on the business website;
  • posting signs to let customers know about safety measures such as masks and social distancing requirements;
  • providing employee training on threat recognition, conflict resolution, and nonviolent response;
  • putting in place steps to asses and respond to workplace violence, e.g., reporting to a manager or supervisor or calling 911; and
  • remaining aware of and supporting employees and customers if a threatening or violent situation occurs.

Employers of all varieties—even those which do not have customer-facing interactions—should take stock of the CDC’s advice and put in place mechanisms to both prevent and respond to workplace violence.

Co-Worker Stress Can Spark Violence

Keep in mind that employees face more than just mask-resistant customers, but may also face mask or social distancing resistant co-workers. We are hearing this issue come up repeatedly in offices opening throughout the country.

Employees are also simultaneously dealing with Covid-19 induced stresses from a myriad of other sources including the challenges of record unemployment, childcare and schooling difficulties, and the everyday worries of functioning around the pandemic.

These stresses, when combined with tense Covid-19-related interactions between co-workers can, under the wrong circumstances, spark workplace violence. For example, certain employees may feel that their safety is threatened because a co-worker refuses to properly wear a mask throughout the day.

While employees should be encouraged to try to address such concerns on their own if they are comfortable doing so, they should know who to seek help from if they are uncomfortable or need assistance.

Moreover, just as the CDC guidance directs employees not to argue with non-mask complaint customer, so too should employers train their employees to avoid heated conflict with other employees where there are disagreements over Covid-19 related safety measures.

Training, Clear Prevention Policies, Communication

Employers should create and train employees to use safe and proper channels that employees can use to report problems with co-workers and related methods for addressing employee concerns.

Such procedures can be created in conjunction with drafting or re-visiting a robust workplace violence prevention policy that includes straightforward examples of prohibited conduct and well-defined procedures for reporting incidents of threats, violence, or other acts that violate the policy. These policies should clearly state that employees will not be retaliated against for raising concerns pursuant to the policies in good faith.

Just as the CDC recommends posting signs and advertising Covid-19 related policies, employers should consider how to distribute its workplace violence prevention measures.

Employers should consider how they can make their communications to employees about workplace violence prevention measures part of an overall reassuring message that outlines all steps an employer is taking to address employee health and well-being, including CDC safety measures and internal mechanisms for diffusing tensions between employees related to Covid-19 safety measures.

Employers should also remind employees of any mental health or other support resources available, including Employee Assistance Programs.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc. or its owners.

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Author Information

Lauri F. Rasnick is a member in the Employment, Labor, and Workforce Management practice Group in Epstein Becker Green’s New York office, a member of the Steering Committee, and co-leader of the Anti-Discrimination, Harassment and Pay Equity Team.

Elizabeth K. McManus is a senior counsel in the Employment, Labor & Workforce Management practice in the firm’s New York office.