‘We’ve had customers try to fight us’: life as an Australian retail worker today

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed all of our working lives, but those in the retail industry have had to pivot more than most. First, workers were tasked with extra cleaning. Then it was making sure people were checking in at the door for contact tracing. Now, vaccination mandates have turned thousands of employees into quasi-security guards – and they are facing increasingly irate customers.

A recent report on the retail industry by the Australian National University found customer abuse and fears over job insecurity have spiked during the pandemic, with women, young people and those from a non-English-speaking background among the hardest hit. Several workers told Guardian Australia of customers swearing, yelling, throwing things, and even threatening to fight them on the street.

The pandemic experience for retail employees, who skew young and female, has varied depending on store type and employment status. Supermarkets were overrun with hordes of panicked customers, while casuals selling clothes, books and other goods lost their shifts when storefronts shuttered. Some workers went from manning the counter to filling click-and-collect orders. Others wondered why on earth their store was deemed “essential” in a ballooning health crisis.

For just about all, it has been an extremely stressful time. Guardian Australia spoke to several workers about their experiences.

Hayden Walsh, a bookstore worker in Sydney
‘We had some customers who threatened physical violence and we had to call the police,’ says Hayden Walsh. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

‘There is a belief that … I can treat them like nothing’

Hayden Walsh, 31, works full time at a book store in the Sydney CBD

Because I’m on the main street of the city in a really large retailer, my experience of customer abuse has been daily and often several times a day. We’ve had some people try to push past staff and security guards and get into almost a physical altercation. We’ve had customers try to fight us, goad staff to come out into the street and have a big punch-up. During the lockdown we had some customers who threatened physical violence and we had to call the police … I definitely felt at times like I was unsafe.

Ensuring they have the right [vaccination] documentation can take a customer from zero to 100 in terms of their level of rage immediately. Fortunately my employer did hire security guards to stand at our two entries and they were responsible for checking all these things. But the staff still did experience abuse.

I think half of that is the fault of the government, not guiding people through that process. I also think there is a belief in many people’s minds that the kind of work retail workers do is poorly paid, it’s people of a lower socio-economic status. There is a belief that these people are paid next to nothing, and I can treat them like nothing.

‘I still do worry because I am older’

Debra Becker, 62, works part time at a department store in Horsham, Victoria

Checking vaccinations is horrible. It’s not pleasant to ask customers, for starters. Most are alright. However, you’ve still got quite a lot of people who don’t like being asked. That’s where the abuse comes in. Especially if you have to turn people away, and we’ve had to turn a lot of people away. Even for a regional town, we’ve had a lot. It stresses a lot of [the staff] out. Me, not so much, because I’m older, so I can stick up for myself.

‘Checking vaccinations is horrible’ says Debra Becker
‘Checking vaccinations is horrible,’ says Debra Becker

I’ve been at [my department store] for 33 years. Working in retail during the pandemic has been exhausting, to be honest. When we were in lockdown, we were doing the click and the collect. And that was quite tiring work, because it is totally different to being behind registers and serving customers, which is what I do.

Wearing a mask still isn’t real pleasant, but I’d rather the mask than worry about someone breathing on me or coughing on me, that’s for sure. Last year it actually was quite stressful, going to work thinking someone could come into the shop and have it. Now not so much, because I’m vaxxed and everyone who works at [our store] has to be fully vaxxed. But I still do worry because I am older, and my husband’s older, and you just never know.

Debra is also vice-president of the SDA Victoria union.

‘We’re super under the pump all the time’

Anonymous casual employee at a clothing store in Victoria

I have been with the company for seven years, which is unheard of. I feel like there’s not been much loyalty from a business perspective. The latest lockdown, there was one short one, and one longer one. Those were the ones we didn’t have jobkeeper for, so I had to go on jobseeker and hope I’d still be called for shifts when we opened up. There was no communication. It was a little bit disappointing considering up until then we were all a team.

Especially considering I’m a casual as well. While I had jobkeeper they were trying to get the most out of us, so I went in to do packing for online (orders). They wanted us to do whatever work we could, because we were getting paid. But the moment jobkeeper ended, that was it for us. So I felt a bit sad.

We’re super under the pump all the time. Some may say that we’re understaffed. We unpack boxes. We process stock. We do our markdowns. We fill our orders. We like to provide intimate styling and shopping guidance. Picking up the phone, processing sales at the point of sale. And now on top of that, they’ve said you have to make sure every single person is vaccinated. And if not, we can get a $11,000 fine. But they haven’t allocated any resources to make sure that happens.

For many retail workers, who skew young and female, the last two years have been extremely stressful
For many retail workers, who skew young and female, the last two years have been extremely stressful. Photograph: Luis Ascui/AAP

‘The police came … but she came back three more times’

Siska Vanek, 25, works full time at a clothes store in the Melbourne CBD

On Friday I had a woman come in, she is a regular. I asked her to show me her vaccination certificate, and she said she wasn’t fully vaxxed. I said, “I’m really sorry but you’ll have to leave because we can’t serve you.” That’s when she lost it at my co-worker and started yelling. I came round the front and I said, “If you’re going to be treating my staff like that I’m going to have to call the police.”

She became even more aggressive, and I called the police. She was yelling at me the whole time, yelling homophobic slurs, and she threw one of the [enamel] pins [from the counter] at me. The police came and moved her on but she came back three more times. One of the times we had to lock the door.

Having to check vaccinations makes everyone who works here feel stressed, because of the extra work and also just the stress of not knowing how someone is going to react. We legally have to do it, but a lot of people treat us like it’s our choice, to not let them in.

We’re down two full-time positions and a few casuals as well. It’s a lot of stress.

‘It’s been a whole new world for us in terms of work’

Jessica Barnes, 37, works part time at a luxury beauty store in Newcastle, NSW

My store was closed for about two months. We lost work and were very fortunate to have access to the jobkeeper program. That was super helpful for me. Some other staff, full-time staff, would have definitely taken a pay cut.

I think [those months] were challenging for everyone, just wondering what we would be going back to. Particularly when we found out that essentially all of the security duties and checking would be placed onto staff. Our store is a completely female staff, so people were quite nervous about how customers would react, if we would have aggressive and abusive people.

“Our store is a completely female staff, so people were quite nervous about how customers would react” to checking vaccination status and check ins, says retail worker Jessica Barnes
‘Our store is a completely female staff, so people were quite nervous about how customers would react’ to check-ins, says Jessica Barnes. Photograph: Bianca de Marchi/AAP

It’s been a whole new world for us in terms of work. We’ve essentially become security guards. There are a lot of increased duties around cleaning, as well as just trying to maintain store limits for customers. We’ve got to check every person before they enter the store to make sure they have their vaccination documentation and to make sure that they’re checking in. This is all on top of our regular day-to-day duties, so it’s quite an increased workload.

A lot of people have become comfortable shopping online. That will obviously have a flow-on effect for brick and mortar stores. A lot of us have been wondering how this will affect our jobs long term.

Jessica is also president of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union.


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