SHOP workers, who have put themselves at risk throughout the pandemic to ensure everyone has food and essentials, are being subjected to abuse and threats from the public on a daily basis.
The Staffordshire Commissioner’s Office has spoken to workers at convenience retailer, Co-op, after retail trade union Usdaw revealed nationally, every minute of the working day during the pandemic a shop worker has been verbally abused, threatened with violence or physically attacked.
This is a national problem and by no means unique to Staffordshire, but the experiences shared by just one retailer, Co-op, show it is a cause for concern.
The Co-operative Group has 41 branches across Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent and has recorded 2214 incidents internally in its stores since January with shoplifting and theft by far the highest, but with verbal abuse against its staff and anti-social behaviour the next most prevalent.
Deputy Commissioner for Police, Fire and Rescue and Crime, Sue Arnold was shocked at hearing the kind of abuse workers are subjected to and is pleading for shoppers to treat workers better this Christmas and throughout the year.
She has heard first-hand from Co-op employees about the abuse, threats of violence and even attacks that its staff are subjected to.
‘This kind of behaviour is awful at any time, but at the moment during the pandemic when workers are putting themselves at risk of the virus to keep the rest of us fed, it’s appalling to hear what they have to endure.
‘I’d like people to think about their actions and treat shop workers with respect and decency. We may all be going through very challenging times and finding things hard, but it is totally unacceptable to take our frustrations out on people who are just trying to do their jobs.
‘Anti-social behaviour is bad enough, but assaults, thefts and robberies are another matter entirely, and our office is looking into how business crime has a very real human and financial cost.
‘I have commissioned a report into business crime, which will be published in the new year, which will give an in-depth look into the very real human and financial cost of business crime in the county and city.
‘This is not a one off, but a long-term problem which has serious consequences for us all and our office is working with the police and other key partners to look at solutions.
‘But for now, I’d ask everyone to be kinder and more considerate to our shop workers this Christmas and at all times throughout the year.’
Adam Jeff has worked at Co-op for 21 years and currently manages the Longford Road branch in Cannock. He has noticed a marked increase in crime and abuse of his staff in the last few years.
‘When I started in this business all those years ago, there was not the violence against staff there is now. It’s definitely got worse, I’ve had threats to smash my face in or to get me at the end of my shift and I’ve also been threatened at knifepoint and with dirty needles.
‘During the first lockdown, people seemed more compliant and reasonable, but during the second one there was a marked change and if my colleagues ask them to abide by social distancing rules, for example, they get threatened and abused.
Adam said he understands pressures on police and he has experienced very good relationships with PCSOs, who call into the shop regularly and were very visible, but this was not consistent and varied store to store, area to area.
Steph Smith, who has worked in the Hartshill branch for 12 years, echoes Adam’s views and has endured two armed robberies herself just last year.
‘Things happen on a daily basis, it’s a good and unusual day if nothing has happened. My children worry about me and text me asking when I’ll be home and if I’m late they worry something has happened to me.
‘Masks are a big issue at the moment, some customers get angry saying they don’t need to wear them and won’t and then we get other customers looking at us to do something about it.
‘We had two men fighting outside the shop about masks at 8.30 in the morning as children passed by on their way to school and we had to call the police.
‘We get it from all sides, but what can we do at the end of the day if people refuse and then threaten us? We’re doing all we can to protect our customers and ourselves, but we shouldn’t have to face violence and abuse for just doing our jobs.’
As part of its Safer Colleagues, Safer Communities campaign, Co-op continues to push the Government to provide greater protection for retail workers by putting longer sentencing in place for offenders.
Covid-19 marshals have also been deployed by Stoke-on-Trent City Council and other districts throughout the county to support retail outlets, working with the police to ensure Covid-19 rules are being followed by customers and staff.
Chief Superintendent Jennie Mattinson, of Staffordshire Police, said:
‘During this pandemic all key workers in Staffordshire, and across the country, have worked tirelessly to support those who truly need them and their efforts should be recognised and applauded. We are truly grateful.
‘It is extremely disappointing that retail workers and others who are on the frontline during these extremely challenging times have suffered abuse. That is simply not acceptable.
‘Staffordshire Police will always support the most vulnerable during this pandemic and respond to those who are breaching the Covid-19 restrictions which are currently in place.
‘Our officers, who are out on that frontline every day, have seen the impact of this pandemic whether that be those suffering increased mental health difficulties or families struggling financially.
‘These additional social factors, we accept, have put an additional strain on people’s lives, but this must never spill over into venting any frustrations or anger at key workers and those in our crucial retail sector.
‘As part of our ongoing patrols around issues created by Covid-19, we are sending out up to five extra double crews each day who are dedicated to responding to breaches.
‘This is in addition to the numbers of officers, PCSOs and Special Constabulary who are already on duty within our response teams and across our ten neighbourhood policing teams.
‘Our patrols will be deployed where they are needed the most and I would urge those working in the retail sector to call us if they feel threatened in any way. Nobody should feel unsafe while at work and providing such a key service in these difficult times.’
Readers can also sign the petition to protect Retail Workers from Abuse, Threats and Violence here.