SALT LAKE CITY — He knew taking a job at a retail store during a pandemic would be dangerous.
He just thought the threat would come from the highly contagious new coronavirus, not from customers who don’t want to wear masks while shopping.
In fact, the aspiring teacher is so terrified that he and his employer will become targets of “anti-maskers” that he insisted on not being identified. He spoke with the Deseret News on the condition that he not be named nor the Utah County store where he works.
He spoke out, despite the fear, which he said is constant and exhausting, because he wants those who are opposed to wearing masks to understand employees have no choice in company policies. And when people insult and either verbally or physically assault people like him, they’re hurting those who are already struggling with the risks of working with the public during a pandemic.
“It seems so silly,” he said. “Sometimes I have a hard time believing it’s real. It’s crazy. ... We’ve had to kick people out, call the cops, get yelled at, insulted, threatened. ... I went in with the expectation that it would be uncomfortable. But some people are super hostile, and I wasn’t prepared for the complete lack of humanity.”
The man’s job seems simple.
Tell people the company requires a mask to be worn in the store. If they don’t have one, he offers them a disposable medical mask. It seems innocuous, but he said his exchanges with customers have ranged from slightly amusing to terrifying. The abuse people unleash on him and his colleagues for a company policy that’s meant to keep them safe feels like an extension of how some people view service workers.
“They think they can do whatever they want to me and my co-workers,” he said. “I know it’s always been that way ... that people in the service industry get treated like garbage.”
The store employee took the job several weeks ago because he needed to support himself while he finishes his bachelor’s degree. Jobs are hard to find, but this one had the added complication of putting him in contact with strangers all day, every day.
“I knew going into the job that I’d be a lot more exposed than I would normally,” he said.
Working with the public forced him to make sacrifices, including giving up visiting with family and in-person contact with some friends. But those sacrifices were something he made willingly because he appreciates being able to support himself with a job he enjoys, working for a company he trusts.
“I love the job,” he said. “Even with the pandemic. ... I knew there would be sacrifices. I knew COVID was going to be a thing, but I didn’t realize it would keep getting worse.”
But the one thing he never anticipated was the level of fear he’d feel, even on his best days.
“I definitely didn’t think I would be wondering if I would be a target of physical violence, let alone almost constant verbal abuse, just for asking people to wear a mask,” he said. “Even those who don’t give us trouble with the masks, they’re rude. ... The only attention we get is negative attention.”
He worked the second day his employer required staff and customers to wear masks in the store. He heard from a co-worker how much resistance there was to what they see as a simple request.
“The first day was a really crazy one,” he said. “One couple came in and the man stopped, but the woman ran off into the store. Some people try to sneak or rush past. ... One woman snatched the mask from my hand, but then she walked around the store without wearing it.”
The woman who refused to wear the mask verbally insulted the manager and was eventually given a piece of paper telling them they’d been banned from the store.
“It’s serious,” the employee said. “They can’t come back. ... The manager told them, ‘You’re now formally banned, the police will be called if you come back and if you don’t leave.’”
When he tried to hand them a sheet of paper informing them what would happen if they returned, “they basically told them to shove the piece of paper. ... And these were regulars. They used to shop there all the time. These are people who supposedly liked the place.”
He said some people seem like they’re reading from a script, telling the employee they have medical conditions and that he has no right to question them, that they’ll sue if he denies them entry.
“There is so much misinformation out there,” he said. “People say they’re going to get sick, that they’ll miscarry, that they can’t breathe. They drive by and yell inside, ‘The virus isn’t real!’ ... They think if you wear a mask, you’re part of a government takeover.”
What would be bizarre from a distance is terrifying when it is standing in front of you yelling.
“The threat is so real when the person is standing right there,” he said, admitting that there are days he goes home drained from the stress and sadness. “The emotional energy of trying to get people to try and follow the rules, it’s just more than I could ever imagine.”
He avoids debates, simply telling them the company’s policy. If they resist, he offers to let them take their grievance to a manager.
That scenario led to one of the most unbelievable experiences he and his manager have had.
“I asked a woman if she had a mask, and she said, ‘No, I do not,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Would you like one then?’ And she said, ‘I have a respiratory condition. You can’t ask me about it. It’s illegal for you to refuse me service.’ I said, ‘Every customer has to have a mask.’ And she said, ‘I’m not going to wear one.’”
He summoned his manager, who began talking with the agitated woman. Eventually, they moved outside, where the manager and woman continued to debate the policy.
The employee could tell the conversation shook his manager, and so after the woman left, he asked what had been said.
“She said making her wear a mask is treating her like a Jew in the Holocaust,” he said. “She essentially called all of us Nazis. ... And the thing is, my manager’s great grandparents were murdered by the Nazis in World War II.”
Both of them were profoundly upset by the encounter.
“He told me, ‘I was shaking. I could barely hold it together. I didn’t respond because I knew it wouldn’t do any good,’” the employee said. “We ranted about it to each other. ... We can’t say anything to the customers. ... I know, whatever I do, they’ll do tenfold.”
It was after that incident that he began wondering if he should share his experiences on Twitter. He didn’t have many followers as a college student, but he said he’s gained a lot of followers and people all over the world have been sharing his tweets. But realizing just how some of these angry customers view him makes him worry that a person or group might target the store.
“Multiple times I’ve thought a customer was going to hit me,” he said. “I’ve had them snatch (the paper mask) out of my hand. ... You’d want to think humans wouldn’t act this way.”
One woman took the mask he offered her when she didn’t have one, but then asked if it was made in China.
“If I get COVID, it’s from this,” she said, slipping the mask on her face.
He said some of the people challenging the rule don’t believe the coronavirus is real. Some laugh, taunt and make fun of employees trying to enforce the rule, while others get angry, yell and try to intimidate him and his co-workers.
But the tweets have been shared hundreds of times, and other retail workers have offered their own horror stories to his. The solidarity has been a comfort to the employee, who lives alone and struggles with his own mental health issues, including depression, anxiety and trauma.
“It’s crazy that people in Michigan or on the East Coast are dealing with the same things,” he said. “It’s really scary that people will yell at me about a mask. ... And it’s not just a Utah thing.”
His stories have elicited horror stories from other people working in retail.
“Dude ... walked right up on me, mask around his neck, and then made fun of me, called me scared, and winked at me ... for backing away because I’m not trying to spread a disease! Be nice to essential workers!” wrote one Twitter user.
In all of the Tweets, the fear is palpable, the frustration evident.
The employee said it permeates everything he does, and sometimes he worries that it’s making him paranoid or that it might have lingering effects on his mental health.
He is sharing his experiences in hopes of letting people know there are human beings working in those stores people say they need. He hopes they will come to understand they’re just doing their jobs, but he knows this may be the environment in which he works for the foreseeable future.
“I have just kind of accepted this is how it is,” he said. “I go to work for eight hours to have people be mad at me. No one at the store, none of the other customers, stand up for you.”
His lifeline is the store’s management. He said they “have his back” no matter what customers say about him, and their faith in him is a source of support for which he’s grateful.
“It’s so rare for people to show us they care,” he said. “It’s tiring. ... We live in a state that’s supposedly unified by religion, by pioneer ancestry, and here we are super divided by a piece of cloth. It’s a shame this has to be politicized.”