New York, NY – The horrific May 14 mass shooting in Buffalo was a targeted hate crime but it was also an example of yet another instance of a troubling trend of workplace violence that left ten people dead including two workers. In addition, a grocery clerk and supermarket manager were wounded and dozens of supermarket employees were traumatized.
Aaron Salter, 55, a retired Lieutenant from the Buffalo Police Department, who was working as an armed security guard at the Tops Supermarket was shot and killed after he heroically engaged the heavily armed suspect. Also mortally wounded was Hayward Patterson, 67, a cab driver. Zaire Goodman, 20, a supermarket employee was wounded as was Christopher Brandon, 55, a store manager.
The Buffalo shooting came just weeks after New York City Mayor Adams honored several TWU Local 100 members for coming to the aide of straphangers who were targeted by an armed gunman who also tossed smoke grenades as he fired dozens of rounds in an attack in a Brooklyn subway that injured 23 people.
LINE OF FIRE
“When bullets were flying, 33 to be exact, you stayed calm, stayed focused, and you saved lives,” Adams said. “Calm, focused, and you saved lives. Thanks to you, no passenger was left behind. No lives were lost. Thanks to you, our city keeps running every day, day after day.”
According to the MTA in 2021, there was a total of 117 physical assaults and 2,380 incidents of employee harassment reported.
“I am thankful that no transit workers were physically injured in that attack but it absolutely helps make the case for hazard pay,” said John Samuelsen, international president of the Transport Workers Union of America, which represents 150,000 workers in rail, public transit, air travel across the country. “It’s the obvious conclusion to draw especially on the passenger transit rail side. Think about it: there’s no security apparatus that anybody has to walk through. There’s no ID check. There’s no metal detector. There’s nothing. We live with the threat of something like this every single day of the year—every moment of the day.”
In January, in New Jersey the Motorbus and Passenger Rail Service Employee Violence Prevention Act took effect which increased the penalties for attacking transit workers and allowed the agency to ban offenders for as long as a year or for their lifetime if the attack involved a deadly weapon. In 2020, the agency recorded 158 assaults on transit workers. The next year it was 183, more than three times the normal number of reported annual assaults, with fewer riders.
The problem of assault on the nation’s bus operators and other mass transit workers has become so acute that the $1.2 trillion bi-partisan infrastructure bill signed into law by President Biden last year requires the nation’s mass-transit systems to develop strategies to combat assaults on transit workers with provisions for withholding federal money if agencies fail to comply.
DEATH ON THE JOB
“In 2020, more than one in seven work related deaths was attributed to workplace violence, for a total of 705—more than from exposure to harmful substances or environments or fires and explosions,” according to the 2022 edition of the AFL-CIO’s annual “Death on the Job : The Toll of Neglect” report. In fact, workplace violence is the fourth most common cause of workplace deaths, and the second-leading cause of workplace deaths for women, with Latino and Black workers also at a higher risk for such deadly encounters.
Close to 400 of those deaths were homicides with over 100 of those being committed in retail establishments like Tops Friendly Market. All totaled, that same year, in the country’s private sector there were 27,000 workplace violence incidents that were serious enough they resulted in lost days at work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over 19,000 of the victims were women with the most likely victims working as nurses, home health aides or Emergency Medical Service professionals.
“These attacks are serious, under reported and often leave workers physically and emotionally scarred for life,” according to the AFL-CIO’s analysis. “Women workers experience seven of every 10 of these serious injuries.”
“There is no federal OSHA standard to protect workers from workplace violence,” reports the AFL-CIO.
Vincent Variale is president of the DC 37’s Local 3621, which represents the FDNY’s EMS officers that supervise the agency’s 4,000 EMS workers.
“And these statistics are under reported because our members are getting bitten and spat upon and often they just figure it’s just part of the job,” Variale said. “Having this ongoing, day in day out —having to face the chronic abuse—the workplace violence— it all takes a toll —one I would say that since the pandemic the FDNY is just starting to pay attention to.”
COVID FLASH POINT?
While in 2020, the AFL-CIO found the overall number of fatal workplace violence injuries decreased, “workplace violence has increased in the COVID-19 pandemic due to confrontations about pandemic safety recommendations and policies inside of workplaces.”
The AFL-CIO’s analysis continued. “This is especially true in already-high-risk settings for violence: health care, transit, retail and other settings. The CDC issued guidance for retail and higher risk service businesses recognizing that threats and assaults had increased in this sector in 2020, but has since archived the guidance. Workplace violence has increased largely because employers are requiring workers to implement COVID-19 prevention policies with customers and clients without proper support and training.”
The United Food and Commercial Workers International Union represents 1.3 million workers in the meatpacking and grocery sector including the workers at Tops Friendly Market in Buffalo.
“Over and over again, workers across industries, including UFCW grocery workers, have been subjected to this type of senseless hate and workplace violence,” said the UFCW, which represents rank and file Tops workers. “It is long overdue for America’s elected leaders to take the steps necessary to protect our workers and communities from these continued acts of hate and violent tragedies.”
“The entire labor movement is appalled by the killing of 10 people and the wounding of three by a man with racist beliefs who targeted Black people,” wrote AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and Secretary-Treasurer/Executive Vice President Fred Redmond. “While there’s no way to make sense of yet another racially motivated, hate-inspired attack on innocent people because of the color of their skin, it’s clear these types of mass shootings are perpetrated by those radicalized on line, and we must take action.”
In March of 2021, at a mass shooting at a Boulder Colorado supermarket, where UFCW also represents workers, ten people were murdered, including a police officer and three store employees.
According to the New York City Central Labor Council, in New York City since April of last year, at least 13 New Yorkers died from a violent attack on the job from a myriad of occupations including delivery workers, drivers, an attorney, retail workers, a DJ, a can collector and police officers.
At the recent Worker’s Memorial Day commemoration in Lower Manhattan, the chair of the New York City Council Committee on Civil and Labor Carmen De La Rosa pressed for legislation requiring all New York City employers to report all workplace deaths to the city.
“Currently, there is no primary or official source from which this information can be collected,” wrote the NYCCLC. “In compiling our list for Workers’ Memorial Day the NYC CLC and the New York Committee on Safety & Health are forced to rely on media reports, information from our affiliates and community organizations and word of mouth.”
While there’s been some legislative efforts on the federal and state front to address violence in healthcare and transit settings, when it comes to the retail and service sector, private employers have got a lot of discretion
“There are currently no specific OSHA standards for workplace violence, only guidance where a workplace violence plan is recommended,” wrote Charlene Obernauer, NYCOSH’s executive director. “However, under the General Duty Clause, employers must provide workers with a workplace that is free from ‘recognized’ hazards. In other words, if an employer is aware of a hazard, they must implement methods to protect workers.”
Obernauer suggests, without any legal mandate per se, in the era of the mass shootings, employers should be proactive.
“The question becomes, is workplace violence enough of a hazard for these workers that OSHA would require an abatement plan? Well, since they don’t have a specific standard, the answer would be no. But having a workplace violence plan is certainly a best practice that all employers should implement, particularly if employees are among a marginalized group that are vulnerable to domestic terrorism, and is the workforce is a high risk industry.”