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Retail employees are caught in the crossfire

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Among the more compelling and moving tales to emerge from the coronavirus pandemic is an episode involving an employee at a Costco warehouse club and a disgruntled but smug and self-important shopper. The customer, it seems, had neglected to don a protective mask, an omission that not only defied Costco’s stated policy of barring entry to those shoppers without protective covering but was sharply at odds with the Club’s other customers and Costco’s associates as well, each of whom had adhered to the edict by wearing a mask.

The Costco employee, suitably attired in his protective mask, approached the recalcitrant shopper and pleasantly explained the warehouse club’s policy, advising him that he would either don a mask or leave the ­premises.

The customer, secure in his First Amendment right that absolved him from any arbitrary rule about masks, insisted he had no intention of wearing one. Finally, the exasperated staffer, fully worn down by the customer’s protestations, grabbed the man’s shopping cart, asked for his Costco membership card, and moved to escort him out of the club. But the customer, determined to have the last word, loudly protested to all around him that his civil rights were being violated and he would have none of it. When last heard from, he was defiantly walking to the exit, while the exasperated staffer, rightly convinced that he had acted in the best interests of his company, its employees and its customers, return to his assigned ­duties.

In the wide and increasingly serious world of COVID-19, this was but one more small and seemingly insignificant example of a retail employee, confuted by the unrealistic, selfish and egotistical demands of an unruly customer, rising to the occasion, not because he was paid or instructed to do so, but because it was the right thing to do.

The retailing community, especially at the grassroots level, has repeatedly risen to this very serious occasion. In many instances, the leaders of this community have seen fit to recognize these employee acts of kindness, bravery and preservation, lauding their performance and publicly thanking them. It is altogether fitting and proper that they do so.

But in a larger sense, it is fair to say that no amount of praise, however sincere and welcome, can possibly compensate those people who staff America’s retail stores that make America hum without enough appreciation for what they’ve done and are continuing to do in the face of this devastating disaster. What we’re talking about here is a sizable number of the U.S. workforce who do their jobs day in and day out without adequate appreciation either from the customers they serve or the corporations that pay their salaries.

So, while the praise and occasional call-outs for these staffers are welcome, appreciated and, in some cases, long overdue, they are hardly in keeping with the heroism of the jobs these individuals routinely perform while protecting our citizens, our country and our future. How difficult must it have been for that Costco staffer, acknowledged though he was for his performance by both his company and his customers, to confront an angry and unreasonable shopper who was convinced he was in the right in appealing the corporate decree that masks be worn inside the warehouse club. Looked at another way, this irate customer was as convinced as the Costco staffer that he was right, and that no rule or regulation had the enforcement power to decree that he must wear a mask.

How much easier and less confrontational it would have been for the employee to waive the rule this one time, rationalize that decision by deciding that it was, after all, just one instance of recalcitrant behavior by a customer who, in all likelihood, was not even infected with the virus. How much easier for all concerned. Except for one thing: This lax enforcement of company policy, carried out through the U.S. retail community, would have transformed a reasonable and well-conceived policy, designed for the protection of all, into a shambles.

Much of the praise for laudable performance in the face of the coronavirus has gone, rightly, to the medical community. Indeed, it is impossible to conceive what our health care workers have been asked to endure to save or prolong the lives of their fellow citizens. But no less laudable has been the performance of the frontline workers in the U.S. retail community, people who have been asked — and ordered — to confront the people who ultimately pay their salaries and kindly ask them to wear a mask while on their premises. The sullen response to this innocuous request makes the behavior of our employees all the more heroic — and all the more laudable.

Hooray for America’s retail ­employees.


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