Violence Against Employees Driven By COVID Fatigue

Liz Carey

Langhorne, PA ( – As reports of violence against workers continue, Dr. George Vergolias, believes it’s a pattern employers will continue to see as tensions run high during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But, he says, there are ways to help employees de-escalate situations and reduce the risk of being attacked by a customer or patron.

Recently, a 17-year-old Sesame Place worker was sent to the hospital for surgery after being attacked by a couple at the park.

According to Middletown Township Police, the worker spoke to the couple and asked them to comply with the park’s mask policy. Hours later, he confronted the couple again which led to an altercation. The couple became hostile and struck the employee, leaving him with injuries to his jaw and tooth that required surgery. After the attack, the couple fled the area.

The police department said it is working with the New York City Police Department to track down the couple, based on images of their license plate.

Sesame Place said they are working with the employee and his family.

“On Sunday, August 9, a guest assaulted and seriously injured one of our team members. We’ve been in close communication with the family of our injured team member, and are hoping for a full and speedy recovery,” the company said in a statement. “The health and safety of our guests and team members is our top priority, and violence of any kind is unacceptable and not tolerated at our park. We are cooperating with local law enforcement on this ongoing investigation.”

Similar attacks have occurred across the country for months. Customers have been provoked over other things as well – like too few chicken nuggets in an order, not enough ketchup in a bag of fast food, or orders taking too long in a drive-thru. Some of the attacks, such as one in March where a security guard at a Family Dollar store near Detroit was shot over a mask dispute, have proved fatal.

Vergolias said he thinks the attacks are fueled by high tension brought about by Covid-19. Vergolias, the medical director for R3 Continuum, a workplace behavioral health and security firm, said the uncertainties of the pandemic and the response to it, are causing fatigue in people across the country.

“None of us, no one alive has been through this before,” he said. “So this is new territory. And we’re at a point that we have major fatigue. We have compassion fatigue. We have staying-at-home fatigue. We have financial fatigue… On top of that, we’re also coming off of a whole host of civil unrest related to the death of George Floyd. And we’re in an election year, which is always heated. So, we have these three threes as a backstop to just increased tensions in general.”

Heightened tensions, he said, mean everyone is closer to their flash point, the point at which they explode.

“Physiologically we’re upset. We’re feeling it. We’re feeling some heightened emotion, and we’re feeling some degree of threat,” he said. “It’s very much a fight or flight arousal when somebody is in that state. And so when we’re already agitated with all of these backdrops of things going on in society and someone asks about wearing a mask, for example, the flash point is so close that people who normally would not react are reacting not only more quickly, but also more intensely. The backdrop factors that are contributing to this right now is everyone is kind of being pushed to those frustration limits or intolerance points.”

Vergolias said that he expected to see tensions running high for some time, possibly into 2021. And more tensions could arise down the road as some families move to reclaim their lives and get back to normal, while others continue to be fearful. Interactions between employees enforcing Covid-related store policies with customers who feel their lives have normalized could push customers, and employees, to the flash point as well.

But, he said, employers can work with their employees to decrease the risk of violence by learning how to address situations without confronting customers. It’s crucial, he said, to remember that in this time, customers feel threatened.

“People are going to disagree. It’s a matter of are those interactions handled in a way that… is not evolving into a hostile interaction?” he said. “One of the most important things is to remember that people in those situations they’re effectively angry, and for some reason they’re angry because they feel threatened… The person that’s getting angry, that customer, also at some level, feels threatened. It might be their ego, their sense of judgment, their sense of pride, their sense of personal freedom, when we understand that, then you can start to engage them in a different way.”

By not resisting customers, employees will be more likely to get them to comply with store policies he said. Using language that says the store’s policies aren’t up for negotiation, but also seeks some understanding between the employee and the customer.

“Let them know that the boundaries aren’t for negotiation, but they’re also not necessarily what the employee at the front door decided,” he said. “Things like ‘This is our policy. I’m so sorry, sir. Um, but you can’t come in,’ but do it in a way where you’re trying to convey ‘Hey, I understand you’re frustrated. I understand you don’t agree with masks.’ has an effect of often de-escalating the person and just mellowing them down, that can go a long, long way.”

But, Vergolias said, there is a bright side. While these attacks are horrible, he said, they are rare. In the millions and millions of interactions between customers and employees that happen every day, these are anomalies.

“Of course we see all these horrendous interactions – these people getting attacked or hit or, you know, literally arguing over face masks in the frozen food aisle,” he said. “But every day there are 100 times more interactions where people are respectful, and violence or hostility doesn’t interrupt them… It’s important for us to remember all of those good human moments as well.”

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