By Sophia Bates & Andrew Palm
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
From October 2018 to August 2020, Hanna Ulevich worked for Madewell, a women’s clothing retailer with locations across the country. She worked her way up from a sales associate to an assistant manager. Her store was conveniently located in Towson Town Center near Towson University, where she goes to school. For awhile, Ulevich said she enjoyed her work.
But when COVID-19 hit in spring 2020, that all changed.
At first, there was no work — the store shut down for months. When it reopened, Ulevich and her co-workers began having regular interactions with disgruntled customers. They didn’t want to follow the rules.
One of the regulars came in without wearing a mask properly and wouldn’t change her behavior after repeated requests. Ulevich said the customer insisted that the mask caused her to not be able to breathe properly. Another day, the customer went to J. Crew, Madewell’s sister store. According to Ulevich, the customer was upset when a J. Crew manager also asked her to adhere to health and safety protocols.
“This is like Nazi Germany,” the customer told the manager.
Ulevich said these types of interactions were commonplace.
“All these people coming in and not respecting the guidelines and not respecting that I’m there to help them — that’s what was overwhelming for me,” she said.
Disrespectful customers are just one of the many reasons why the customer service industry has become so stressful during COVID-19. This is especially so for retail and restaurant managers who are responsible for so much. Working a shift that’s understaffed, keeping up with intense and new cleaning protocols and worrying about unruly customers disobeying a mask-wearing mandate and compromising the health of everyone else: This is the new normal for restaurant and retail management during the coronavirus pandemic.
Hear managers discuss their experiences during COVID-19.
The health and safety of everyone is important during COVID-19. Restaurant and retail managers are putting themselves at risk by going into stores and being around other people for prolonged periods of time. They are dealing with co-workers, customers and upper-level and corporate management — all of whom are not always on the same page.
Anya Schultz is a reporter for The Counter, an independent food news website, and a recent graduate of Columbia Journalism School. She recently wrote about how stressed-out restaurant workers are forced to play public health police during the pandemic.
According to Schultz, the pandemic is adding additional stress to everyone working in restaurants due to the added protocols.
“I think just with so many different regulations and things changing since March, there’s been job insecurity in every sector. The restaurant industry has been hit really hard,” Schultz said. “The unstable conditions of constantly having regulations change in terms of whether you even have a job or what you do and then having to have added responsibilities of enforcing the wearing of masks or enforcing tables being six feet apart and time limits on dining, there’s so many regulations that people have.”
Joe Lamirande is a bartender and manager at Paradiso in Westminster, Maryland. Lamirande said it’s been stressful trying to make sure people stay socially distanced.
“Not just from a health point of view but from a legal point of view,” Lamirande said. “If we can’t keep people at the proper distance we risk a fine and potentially being shut down.”
Fines and the worry of a shutdown come from regulations put in place by the state of Maryland to control the pandemic. As of Dec. 6, all bars and restaurants in Maryland were ordered to close by 10 p.m. and only maintain 50 percent capacity.
Lamirande said the restaurant relies heavily on regulars who attend the bar throughout the week. These customers are welcomed in normal times but during COVID-19 can become a problem.
“They’re kind of entitled,” Lamirande said. “They don’t like being told they have to sit down. Or when they are standing to wear a mask and stay away from the bar. That’s just the way it is right now, though. I don’t really care how they feel about it.”
Lamirande lamented the constant need to be vigilant about customers around the bar, along with at tables. He said it’s tiresome to constantly monitor patrons to make sure they are doing what they’re supposed to being doing. A big problem he faces is people sitting at tables that have been marked off to maintain social distancing and capacity guidelines.
“That part….is the most baffling part in my opinion,” Lamirande said. “There’s literally a sign saying not to sit there and I just don’t even know what to say honestly. Be better.”
Customer interactions became so unpleasant and stressful for Ulevich by late summer that she decided to quit her job. She had been suffering from depression and anxiety. And she was concerned about getting sick.
“I personally quit my job because of my mental health,” she said. “For me, it was just mostly that I didn’t want to give it [the virus] to my immediate family. I just personally didn’t want to feel responsible for bringing it home even though I was wearing a mask, washing my hands and social distancing.”
Caleb Warnick, 20, is a customer experience coordinator for Marshalls. He said that his company doesn’t allow employees to confront customers who aren’t wearing masks.
“At the place that I work at if a customer walks in wearing their mask here or here,” Warnick said while pointing in between his nose and lip and then under his chin, “or not at all, we can’t say anything. We can offer them a mask from a box but we can’t say you need to cover your face.”
And that stresses Warnick out.
“To me it’s just completely absurd,” he said. “Now you are putting the health and safety at risk of other shoppers who don’t even need to be there as I see it.”
Managers who are tasked with asking customers to adhere to safety protocols are, in some cases, given training on how to handle such interactions. ServSafe, a safety training website established by the National Restaurant Association, is offering free COVID-19 training resources for restaurant management during this time. One of its videos offers de-escalation tips when “difficult situations may arise with guests adhering to the guidelines,” according to the website.
Adam Lukoskie is the vice president for the National Retail Federation Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the NRF. According to Lukoskie, the foundation introduced two COVID-19-specific training programs on its website. This includes a COVID-19 retail operations training that helps train frontline employees on how to work retail during the pandemic, and the second is a COVID-19 customer conflict prevention training.
“We use specific scenarios around COVID like asking someone to wear a mask,” Lukoskie said. He added that other scenarios included are customers being upset about other customers not wearing a mask and dealing with store capacity.
“Employees and especially management are having to coach their employees a lot knowing that the employee already has additional stress because of COVID,” Lukoskie said.
Nick Lopez, 21, who worked as a waiter at Paradiso, is familiar with this stress.
“Nothing has made my opinion of people go down like working at Paradiso during the pandemic,” Lopez said. “A lot of people are so wrapped in themselves they seem to forget that everyone is going through this, those working are not immune.”
Lopez said he quit his job Paradiso and moved to Maine for a month to get away from the stress. He dealt with under-staffing along with having to deal with difficult customers. Lopez said there were many nights when there would only be three waiters working, and the workload probably required about four or five.
On top of that, he said the customers were no help to the cause. “You almost felt like some people didn’t even realize the situation at hand,” Lopez said. “Some people have attitudes towards you like it’s my fault we’re in this situation.”
Lamirande recalls a story from early in the summer when he had a confrontation with one of the owner’s friends. Since Paradiso has been a staple in the Westminster downtown area for 25 years, it has a lot of patrons who regularly come in and have become friends with the owner.
A regular approached the bar without a mask on and remained standing while all the other bar stools were occupied. This violates health and safety protocols. Lamirande told the patron several times that he had to put a mask on and step away from the bar or he would have to leave. The customer followed orders at first but then came back to the bar in violation of the code.
It got to the point where both Lamirande and the restaurant owner confronted the patron and asked him to leave. Since the customer considered himself to be a close friend of the owner’s, the exchange got heated. After a brief period of raised voices, the customer left.
And not every establishment is following the rules, either.
There have been recent incidents reported in which restaurants have been seating tables well over the allowed amount — and some places even allowing parties. One restaurant worker who did not want to be named said the restaurant that he works at has been neglecting protocol. He waited on a 23-person party in a banquet room.
“We were told they were going to be wearing masks but they didn’t,” the worker said. “We spaced out the tables a bit, but that only does so much. It’s not a big room.” The restaurant routinely books large parties and doesn’t consult its employees before making these decisions.
The same restaurant has also allowed employees who have shown COVID-19 symptoms to continue to work because of concerns about being understaffed.
Warnick said understaffing is chronic problem during the pandemic. He’s seen associates quit because the stress of COVID-19 was affecting their mental health and ability to work.
“I can confidently say one person quit because of their mental health,” Warnick said. “At the same time we had people working there before the pandemic and when we came back they weren’t returning phone calls about coming back to work. Then, we had new hires who came and left because they thought the environment was crazy and was too stressful.”
Warnick added that this makes the situation worse for the managers, coordinators and associates that are working while understaffed.
“Customer experience is a big thing for all retailers,” Warnick said. “If you have long lines and not enough employees to rectify the situation, then customers get annoyed and will complain to the highest person in the company that they can reach.”
Warnick said a shutdown is the only way to keep retail and restaurant employees safe from the virus and to ensure their mental health.
“If people can’t get their act together and follow health and safety guidelines, they don’t deserve to shop or eat out freely,” Warnick said. “Shutting down would be the only way to actually protect the mental health of those risking a lot just to sell a non-essential item.”