As workplaces become more violent, California calls for stricter protections

Industry opposes a legislative bill to enact protections, but could support less stringent proposed Cal/OSHA safety requirements.

By Dan Ross, Capital & Main

This story is produced by the award-winning journalism nonprofit Capital & Main and co-published here with permission.

Christmas 2021 was only four days away and the evening was getting late at a Ralphs supermarket in Mid-City Los Angeles. Craig Jones, who worked as a cashier, spotted something fishy in the liquor aisle.

Two young men — both in their 20s, taller and thicker-set than him — were attempting to stuff bottles of wine and champagne into their pants. Jones, 63, approached them with the offer of help, as was company policy to deter potential shoplifters, he said. But the men turned on him, knocked him to the ground before one of the men attempted to stomp his head.

The last thing that flashed through Jones’ mind was a scene from The Sopranos. “A guy was stomped on by a foot and lost most of his teeth,” Jones recalled.

After that, Jones’ memory blanks. He can’t remember how he ended up slumped against the elevators outside the store. He remembers, however, the assailants outside with him, and it looked like they were coming back for more. “I remember thinking, ‘This is it — I’m going to die.’”

Instead, the men chose to flee. They haven’t been apprehended for that crime, said Jones. And though he didn’t lose any teeth in the incident, he said he suffered a concussion. He was back to work within a few days — though not for long.

In his 44 years working for the grocery chain Ralphs, Jones said he had tried to stop thieves before, but in doing so had violated company guidelines warning against engaging shoplifters with anything more than the offer of help. Jones said that after the company investigated the latest incident, he was fired for once again breaking store policy, though he strongly disagrees that he did. Ralphs declined to comment for this story.

The loss of work left Jones struggling to pay his mortgage. He drained his 401(k). The night of Dec. 21 haunts him still. He suffers nightmares, sleeplessness, headaches and anxiety when in public.

“I was recently walking out to my car and there was a gentleman who resembled one of the assailants,” he said. “My head’s on a swivel. I jump in the car, get it locked. I didn’t know what was happening.” Nothing happened. The man moved on and Jones drove off, but the incident shows how he remains traumatized by the attack, he said.

Jones is one of the roughly 1.3 million employees in the nation who are violently attacked every year in the workplace by fellow workers or members of the public. Such incidents are the third leading cause nationally of death on the job. In California alone, 57 workers died from acts of violence in 2021. That was the year a Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority maintenance worker gunned down and killed nine people at a San Jose rail yard. Violence on the job is a huge problem, and a largely unregulated one, too.

In workplaces around the country, businesses are required to protect their employees from general health and safety risks by putting guardrails on circular saws and barriers to stop workers falling from dangerous heights. But there are no state or federal standards specifically requiring all business owners to protect their workers from attacks by others. While the problem appears to be on the rise, it’s impossible to know exactly how severe it is because the frequency, type and severity of these incidents are not comprehensively tracked as they are for other workplace threats. Many episodes simply go unreported. In California, that could be about to change, depending on the outcome of a struggle between labor and industry.

There are separate efforts moving through the state Legislature and through the California Occupational Safety and Health Agency (Cal/OSHA) to reduce the frequency of workplace violence, and to better prepare employees for when it does occur. Both would require business owners to enact violence prevention plans, conduct staff training and log violent incidents. But business groups and their employees are at odds over which set of rules should be enacted.

The business community argues Senate Bill 553 would just create unnecessary record keeping, and includes provisions backed by unions — like bans on employees being required to confront suspected shoplifters — that are too restrictive to be applied across all industries. The draft Cal/OSHA regulations that business groups endorse are already years in the works. They include less stringent requirements than the bill for employee training and incident response.

According to Karen Tynan, an attorney for the law firm Ogletree Deakins, a labor and employment law firm, SB 553 has a lot of support in the Legislature due in large part to the long wait for such regulations. “I understand why labor and advocates and the Legislature and others are impatient and want to get this done,” she said.

*   *   *

The term workplace violence covers a range of incidents including armed robberies, sexual assaults, stabbings and shootings. It also encompasses more insidious behavior, like harassment from stalkers and racist threats. The psychological toll on victims can be debilitating — some describe PTSD-like symptoms.

Low-wage retail workers are among the most vulnerable thanks to a belligerent public emboldened by understaffed and inadequately guarded shops, grocery and convenience stores. Societal norms stretched thin by the pandemic are often cited as a catalyst for this worsening behavior. Social media memes and grainy CCTV clips showing vicious workplace assaults only cement this impression.

SB 553 is modeled on rules instituted in California in 2017 for the health care industry, and the bill has the support of influential worker advocacy organizations like the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees. Nationally, 11 states have enacted similar laws requiring health care businesses to establish a violence prevention plan or program. An analysis of federal data shows that the number of health care sector-related workplace violence citations in California has sharply dropped since reaching a high in 2019. (Disclosure: AFSCME is a financial contributor to Capital & Main.)

But SB 553’s regulations are too prescriptive to be implemented across all industries, say industry groups led by the California Chamber of Commerce. The bill would be especially onerous for small businesses already hobbled financially by the pandemic, these groups say. Instead, they have thrown their weight behind Cal/OSHA’s ongoing efforts to write its own set of workplace violence protections.

While Cal/OSHA’s draft regulations are similar to what is in SB 553, there are some differences. The bill would require employers to provide active shooter training for their employees if there is what’s considered a reasonable threat at the work site and shoplifter training for retail workers. Cal/OSHA’s draft regulations currently require only “general awareness” workplace violence training. While the bill mandates that employers log any post-incident response and investigation, Cal/OSHA’s draft regulations don’t.

According to Rachel Michelin, president of the California Retailers Association, one of the main problems with SB 553 concerns a provision barring employers from requiring employees to confront active shooters or suspected shoplifters. Because the definition of “employee” is not clear, the clause could hobble the ability of outside security guards and retail “loss prevention” officers, many of whom are trained to de-escalate tense situations, from doing their job, she said.

Proponents of SB 553, however, highlight other language in the bill appearing to still give security guards and other trained personnel permission to confront active shoplifters if needed. But they said that the bill’s sponsors hope to include clarifying amendments to ensure that only untrained rank-and-file workers are barred from having to put themselves in such risky situations. The bill passed the state Senate earlier this month and moves to the Assembly for committee hearings.

The bill’s advocates also point out that if SB 553 passes, the bulk of it would go into effect early next year. Cal/OSHA, on the other hand, has been working on its rules since the start of 2017, and critics warn it could still take years for them to be formally enacted.

“Workers have had enough and need protection now,” said Stephen Knight, executive director of Worksafe, a workplace safety advocacy organization. He described Cal/OSHA’s draft regulations as “watered down and weak compared to the health care standard.” The health care standard calls for a workplace prevention plan to be reviewed at least annually, for example. Cal/OSHA’s draft regulations require a review only periodically, or if an incident has occurred.

Sen. Dave Cortese, chair of the Senate Labor, Public Employment and Retirement Committee and the primary sponsor of SB 553, voiced similar frustrations with Cal/OSHA’s over six-year effort to write workplace violence regulations. He said he would be amenable to a “cutoff” for small businesses with only a few employees, countering another industry concern. But he also claimed that he had not heard broad resistance to the seven main provisions of the bill, which includes allowing labor unions to petition for a restraining order against a member of the public on behalf of a worker. Cal/OSHA’s draft regulations don’t include such a clause.

“Frankly, I think they would be embarrassed to say, ‘Even though there’s a lot of shootings in grocery stores right now, we don’t think a restraining order makes any sense even if there’s a violent worker,’” said Cortese. “They just want to use this broad sweeping language [to say] that this is somehow too hard.”

The business community’s concerns about the Senate bill, however, “do not relate to basic requirements,” said California Chamber of Commerce policy advocate Robert Moutrie. Instead, he raised concerns over language in the bill that could require businesses to install alarm systems and make modifications to buildings. This might be impossible for some business owners who rent their premises, he said. “In addition, we are concerned with SB 553’s obligation to provide individualized counseling, which, although appropriate in some circumstances, is not feasible for small employers to provide.”

The bill is worded loosely enough so that no business owner would be required to make unnecessary modifications to the workplace, responds Jassy Grewal, legislative director for the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Western States Council. Furthermore, “It doesn’t necessarily say that after, say, someone has been harassed in the parking lot that they have to be given individual counseling,” said Grewal. “It is a recommendation to be considered as a post-incident response.” (Disclosure: UFCW is a financial contributor to Capital & Main.)

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Christie Sasaki is a warm, chatty, mother of a 15-year-old daughter. She works as a front-end supervisor at a Pavilions in Beverly Hills. And she can enumerate several incidents just this year in which she has been threatened by customers.

There was the time in January when a couple took off with bottles of Veuve Clicquot champagne and Casamigos tequila. Sasaki and a security guard followed the couple from afar, when the male turned to them and formed a pistol with his finger. “I thought maybe he had a gun in his car and that he would come back and shoot us,” she said. Sasaki is especially worried about going to the company’s storage basement beneath the store. It’s often unguarded and creepy, she said. Security footage has shown the same two men have twice this year ransacked a locked liquor room in the basement, she said. Sasaki is disturbed at the thought of what might have happened had she had been down there alone at the time.

“They’re just very brazen,” she said, about the store’s shoplifters. It’s gotten to the point where Sasaki is now considering looking for a job outside of the grocery industry.

If new regulations are enacted, questions arise about Cal/OSHA’s ability to enforce them to better protect workers like Sasaki. Earlier this year, Capital & Main found that the agency was missing more than a quarter of the inspectors needed to monitor the general safety of the state’s workplaces. This had led to a drop in on-site inspections, and a backlog of cases left unresolved for excessively long periods.

“It’s definitely a concern,” said Yelisa Ambriz, a farmworker advocate for the Central California Environmental Justice Network (CCEJN), which supports SB 553, about Cal/OSHA’s ongoing staffing shortage. For any new workplace violence regulation, therefore, it will be important for the agency to properly alert workers of the new landscape, she said. “Many times, legislation as well as Cal/OSHA regulations are updated without any consultation of the most affected communities, leaving workers without any knowledge of changes.”

As for Jones, who now works for the grocery chain Vons, improvements to workplace safety are desperately needed. “Employers are supposed to keep their workers safe and their customers safe.” Right now, he added, “They’re not.”

Copyright 2023 Capital & Main

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