Rude shoppers are fueling America's crippling labor shortage

·3 min read
walmart worker mask
Retail workers are quitting at record rates. Courtesy of Walmart
  • Retail and restaurant workers are quitting at record rates during a crippling labor shortage.

  • They cite poor pay and working conditions, but rude customers also play a part, surveys suggest.

  • It's time that consumers take some of the blame - and that employees give their workers more power.

The labor shortage blame game has bounced between employers, workers, and jobless benefits.

Business owners have accused workers of being lazy, or disincentivized by expanded federal unemployment benefits - while workers say they're not paid enough for what they do, and are seeking better pay, benefits, and schedules.

But surveys suggest another group shoulders some of the blame: consumers who have treated workers poorly and led some of them to quit their retail jobs and refuse to return to the industry.

In a poll of restaurant workers from earlier this year, eight in 10 said that they had experienced hostile behavior from customers who didn't want to follow COVID-19 safety protocols. About half said they were considering leaving their jobs, and of that group, four in 10 said this was because of customer hostility and harassment.

A survey of restaurant workers released in August yielded similar results - more than two-thirds said a key reason for the labor shortage was customer disrespect.

At the same time, labor department data suggests workers in customer-facing roles are quitting at higher rates than in other industries. The agency's most recent jobs report showed that workers in hotels, food services, and retail quit at a higher rate in August than the record national rate that month - meanwhile, the US is still short of more than 200,000 retail jobs.

The customer isn't always right

The idea that the "customer is always right," which dates back more than 100 years, has given rise to entitled consumers and more aggression toward retail workers, Insider's Avery Hartman recently reported.

Some customers have unloaded their frustrations on the cashier checking out their groceries, or the fast-food worker at the drive-thru window.

It's happened more and more as the pandemic has progressed: Early on, consumers celebrated frontline retail workers, hailing them as "heroes" who were risking their lives to enable people to buy essentials.

"I think my members felt really good about what they did because they were saving their communities," Marc Perrone, president of UFCW, the US' largest retail worker union, recently told Insider.

But that mindset shifted over time, and workers increasingly said they felt they were risking their lives only to be abused by rude or aggressive customers. Some of these workers had to police COVID-19 safety rules in stores and ask shoppers to wear masks or provide proof of vaccination.

"Owners of stores didn't want to tell customers to wear a mask, customers felt entitled, and workers got caught in the middle. I don't think most of the employers took it seriously enough," Perrone said.

Confrontations between workers became more frequent, and occasionally cost workers their lives.

"No wonder so many either don't want to come back to their old customer-facing job, or, they are quitting soon after they return," Mark Cohen, director of retail studies at Columbia Business School, told Insider.

The balance of power is shifting

The tight labor market is forcing some employers to boost pay and improve benefits. But businesses could go even further to retain staff by rebalancing the power between customers and workers. Stores such as Gap and H&M are already realizing this by launching campaigns to shield workers from hostile customers.

Employers could, for example, provide staff "security support in the face of bad behavior on the part of customers," Cohen said.

Without these protections, workers are more likely to quit - especially now they are in a better position to do so during the labor shortage.

"Workers will understandingly seek a best decision for themselves, something they haven't had the luxury of in the past," Cohen said.

If you are a retail worker with a story to share please contact this reporter at mhanbury@insider.com.

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