Even in a time of record unemployment, some of Dan’s colleagues at an Indiana Walmart have walked off the job. They aren’t quitting over fears of catching COVID-19, he explained. They’re quitting because of customers who become abusive when asked to wear face masks.
“A lot of our people have been verbally harassed to the point of breaking down and just quitting,” Dan, who like other workers interviewed in this story used a pseudonym to avoid retaliation from his employer, told The Daily Beast.
If anything, jobs like Dan’s are about to get even more complicated.
On Monday, Walmart will begin mandating protective face masks—a policy that some stores already enforced based on local guidelines or management’s discretion. But the much-needed protection for workers comes with a catch: As masking has gone from common-sense gesture to culture war frontier, with right-wing figures and conspiracy theorists denouncing the protective gear, some customers are simply refusing to wear face masks—or worse.
That leaves workers at stores like Target, Walmart, and Kroger—where employees have already battled shoppers over masks—bracing for a summer of customer service hell.
Dan’s Walmart already had masking rules on the books before the nationwide announcements, he said, and workers were already sick of trying to enforce them.
“Our general feeling is that we don't get paid enough to deal with it,” he told The Daily Beast, noting that he worked at a “high risk/high theft” store. “Everyday we’re threatened, sometimes physically assaulted and harassed daily. Even if we try to enforce it, customers can just say they have a medical reason or religious reason to not wear a mask.”
Although some shoppers likely object to the masks simply because they don’t like wearing them, others have, for months now, been increasingly refashioning masks as a political symbol.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham memorably tweeted that wearing masks would make everyone “like Antifa,” the anti-fascist activists who have become a constant focus of rage within Fox and the Trump administration. Although some conservative governors have recently instituted mask mandates, Trump himself declined to publicly wear a mask until this past week, by which point more than 130,000 Americans had died of COVID-19. Previously, he retweeted a Fox News analyst who mocked Joe Biden for wearing a mask. When the president was required to wear a mask during a tour of a Ford plant in May, he pulled the mask down while in front of cameras because he “didn't want to give the press the pleasure of seeing it.”
Some health conspiracy theories, many of them popular on the far right, have either falsely claimed masks were dangerous, or that anti-maskers could invent bogus medical conditions to avoid wearing protection. The result is incidents like one that went viral in mid-May, when a prominent Flat Earth conspiracy theorist filmed herself yelling at a grocery store worker who told her she had no medical basis to enter the store unmasked.
Walmart said that, while it was actively evaluating the safest path forward for workers, it was currently training some staff as “Health Ambassadors” to deal with customers.
“Our Ambassadors are receiving special de-escalation training to help make the process as smooth as possible for customers,” a Walmart spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “They will work with customers who show up without a face covering to try and find a solution. There is not a uniform solution, because there is not a uniform approach to each situation. In many of our stores we have also repurposed our third party security resources to assist in reminding customers to wear masks. Since it may not be possible for all customers to wear masks, our Ambassadors are also trained on how to best handle exceptions to reduce friction.”
Steven, a Walmart employee in Michigan, said his store has already begun using door workers to ask customers to mask up.
“I have been on the door two days so far, not long,” he said on Thursday. On one of those days, “I asked a customer if they had a mask, and she walked by me, completely ignored me as if I did not exist. Another one swore, ‘That's fucking bullshit, and fuck this place.’ One customer replied in a hostile tone, ‘You can't make me,’” he recalled.
Two of his coworkers experienced the same or worse, Steven added, with one having seen mask-wearing customers performatively sneeze at her. “They were expressing their contempt,” Steven said. “She said one customer spit at her. Another associate working before me said she has customers swear at her, ‘Fuck you.’ Repeatedly.”
The experience is not unique to Walmart. Target also announced a nationwide masking policy this past week. The rule will take effect Aug. 1. Julia, a Target worker in Ohio, said many of her colleagues had, at least until now, been reluctant to ask customers to wear masks, due to intimidation from those shoppers.
One of her managers “told a woman that we now require face masks in the store and the guest just yelled “go F*** yourself" and walked out,” Julia told The Daily Beast via email. “I watched another manager simply tell another lady that we required them and she just yelled, ‘I have a doctor's note’ and walked off.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers Union, which represents some stores with newly mandatory masking, like Kroger supermarkets, said the masks were a good policy to protect workers, but that enforcement should be left to trained security.
“Kroger's action to mandate masks for customers is long overdue and an important step that UFCW has been calling for since the beginning of the pandemic,” UFCW President Marc Perrone said in a statement. “To help save lives, every retailer and grocery store across this nation must adopt a mask requirement, and enforcement must be done by trained professionals, not retail workers already stretched thin during this crisis.”
The risks for retail workers—who did not sign up to act as de facto bouncers when they took the job—is real. On July 11, a Walmart shopper pulled a gun when asked to mask. Days later, on the first day a Louisiana Walmart required masks, another man had a meltdown when asked to wear a mask, allegedly driving his truck into a police officer who arrived on the scene.
Of course, as workers noted, customer tantrums predate COVID-19’s arrival in the U.S. Hannah, a Walmart worker, said a store where she previously worked made national news this year after a woman was arrested there in March for allegedly trying to build and detonate a nail bomb with items she’d pulled from the shelves. (Julia said her Target store “already had two knife incidents just last year alone,” completely unrelated to the pandemic.)
Hannah said she initially worried about worker safety enforcing the masks, but that management in her store was stepping up and shouldering most of the confrontations. Her current store experiences fewer customer outbursts than her previous one, which was the site of the nail bomb incident.
“I think people are understanding now that customer hosts [Walmart’s name for door workers] are essential and [are] there to do their job and provide good customer service in the midst of COVID-19,” she said.
Kate said she didn’t think Walmart would ask cashiers like her to do most of the enforcement, either. “They’re going to expect enforcement to be done by people in management positions and asset protection,” she said.
But, Kate noted, “a lot of employees feel like it’s just Walmart posturing for public effect and management won’t do anything about people who aren’t complying.”
Worst of all, some of the workers said they worried their stores' new policies would actually ramp up the rate of conflicts—without giving them new deescalation powers.
“I actually worry with a more official policy from Target, that we will have more angry people,” Julia said. “But even Target making it mandatory won't do much because what would they have us do? We could refuse to help guests but then they've most likely already walked around the store anyway. Our AP [asset protection] has no way to stop guests from actually coming into our store, they aren't allowed to physically touch anyone and if the person decides to ignore us asking them to leave, the only thing we can do is call the police, which we aren’t allowed to do.”
Target did not return a request for comment.
Dan, the Indiana Walmart worker, said he worried the company’s new policy was a paper tiger, there to appease customers who wanted masks, but with no real enforcement mechanism.
“Walmart put an order in without giving us any real way of enforcing it,” he said. “They always bend over backwards for the customer no matter the circumstances. Associates feel helpless and scared to go to work to barely make anything compared to the people on unemployment.
“It’s bullshit and not fair.”