Unpacked   //   April 17, 2024

Unpacked: New York state weighs protection for retail workers in response to rising concerns around violence

A union-supported proposal in New York state would require retail stores to implement new workplace safety measures, a response to rising concerns around violence toward employees and in public spaces.

The Retail Worker Safety Act would require ongoing training programs around violence prevention plans and de-escalation. Companies would have to conduct regular risk assessments and keep records of violent incidents. Larger employers, or those with 50 or more employees nationwide, would have to install panic buttons. The Retail, Wholesale & Department Store International Union, one of the proposal’s biggest supporters, has been rallying workers to call for passage through in-person events, online petitions and media outreach.

“It’s low-hanging fruit to do right by workers,” said Josh Kellerman, director of public policy for the RWDSU. “To me, it’s a public health issue. People have to shop in person. This isn’t just about protecting workers, it’s about creating safe gathering places.”

Some industry sources report increased instances of violence inside stores. According to the National Retail Federation’s latest security survey, about 88% of retailers report that shoplifters are “somewhat or much more” violent than they were one year ago. Companies that track shoplifting incidents involving violence saw an average of 35% more incidents.

Still, the proposal faces an uphill climb in a busy legislative session with business lobbies likely to push back against new regulations. And while it’s the sole state-focused legislation around retail workplace violence to be under consideration, it follows in the steps of similar workplace safety regulations for sectors like health care and government employees.

Here’s a breakdown of the law and the landscape of retail worker safety.

What are the concerns about violence in retail stores? 

Customer-facing environments like retail stores have a unique challenge for safety, said Mark Goldstein, an employment law attorney with Reed Smith. Anyone can enter the doors and “you don’t know their demeanor, you don’t know their behavior, you don’t know their particular tendencies.”

A Motorola Solutions survey of retail workers ahead of the 2023 holiday season found many who work in retail environments reported a rise in violent or unsafe incidents. More than half of the 1,000 associates and managers surveyed reported that petty theft was on the rise, with nearly one-third saying the same about “hostile customer interactions.” Beyond the immediate threats, retail violence breeds retention concern: about one in four said they had considered leaving their jobs due to safety concerns.

Karen Tynan, shareholder with Ogletree Deakins and longtime workplace safety attorney, said that retail theft that leads to violence is one of the biggest concerns. Interactions with customers, as well as issues between workers or third parties like a spouse, can also turn violent and present safety concerns.

“I think most retailers know and understand about those instances,” she said. “It’s just a matter of getting, industrywide, an understanding of those interactions and behaviors that put employees at risk.”

What does the data surrounding retail violence say?

FBI data analyzed by The New York Times last year quantified the troubling trend, finding that the number of assaults in grocery stores rose by 63% from 2018 to 2020. The increase was 75% for convenience stores. In a 2021 report on active shootings, the FBI said 32 of 61 incidents occurred in “areas of commerce,” like stores open to the public and malls.

“There’s legitimate data to suggest the number of workplace violence incidents have substantially increased in the past decade or so,” Goldstein said. “It’s something U.S. employers are undoubtedly thinking about.”

Then there are the examples that make national news. A security guard at a Macy’s in Philadelphia was killed and another injured in early December. Later that month, a guard was killed in a Chicago-area shopping center after being shot three times.

What safety measures are businesses already using?

Retailers have long used methods like locking up products or hiring security guards to deter theft — measures that, in theory, could reduce any theft-related violence. However, the recent increase in violent incidents has some retailers changing strategies.

Stores like Giant and Safeway beefed up security earlier this year following retail theft incidents in the Washington, D.C. area. Giant, for its part, told Axios it reduced exits and started to use cameras to track items, while Safeway installed security gates that require customers to scan receipts.

Last October, Target said it was closing nine stores because of concerns about theft and organized crime. CEO Brian Cornell had said in the company’s second-quarter earnings call last August that it saw a 120% increase in theft incidents that turned violence or threats of violence.

“We’re continuing to work tirelessly with retail industry groups and community partners to find solutions to promote safety for our store teams and our guests,” Cornell said at the time.

What would be required of employers under the new proposal?

If passed, the proposal as it is currently written would require the state Department of Labor to create a model workplace violence prevention training program and let employers know what’s required to teach. Employers would have to keep records of workplace violence incidents for at least three years.

Tynan from Ogletree said that many companies are already moving in that direction. Training programs — not just for supervisors, but floor associates, is “absolutely critical,” she said. “Especially big Fortune 500 companies, they already have workplace behavior and workplace violence policies,” she said.”Most folks, if they haven’t already stepped up, they’re ready to step up and they understand our country’s culture and the need for protection against workplace violence.”

Motorola’s survey of retail associates found that 30% would feel safer with a panic button, which the New York state proposal as written would require. But Tynan said the proposal could benefit from more flexibility around the requirement. “I don’t think a one-size-fits-all approach works,” she said. “The higher-end designer store is going to have different risks than a corner bodega.”

To Kellerman and other supporters, not enough is currently being done to keep workers safe amid unknown threats. The union’s ongoing survey of its members recently revealed that half of workers said they hadn’t received any anti-violence training.

“We felt it was essential to legislate on these issues,” he said. “We felt like there is no other way we are going to get compliance from the industry.”

And while Kellerman said many businesses may have security teams that already do risk assessments, those aren’t necessarily shared with the associates who could benefit from that information. “That’s where there’s a disconnect,” he said.

Are there similar laws elsewhere?

While New York’s Retail Worker Safety Act is specific to the sector, there are many other states and policies that have looked to address workplace violence. There are also laws in more than half a dozen states around workplace safety in health-care settings.

Most recently, a California law that kicks in on July 1 will require employers to have a workplace violence prevention plan, including retail operations. That law also requires businesses to hold onto records of workplace violence, as well as provide annual trainings around the plan.

Kellermann said the proposal is modeled after a policy that New York State already has for public workers, which has been shown to reduce violent incidents.

What are the next steps for New York’s policy?

The proposal was introduced at the start of the calendar year and has been referred to the Senate Labor Committee. It will require passage from the Senate and Assembly before approval from Gov. Kathy Hochul.