Posts Tagged ‘retail’

Retailers: Are you ready for crowds on Black Friday?

Tuesday, November 8th, 2011

In the pre-holiday shopping season, crowd control is no small issue for retailers. And Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is the behemoth day that dwarfs all other days. Last year, 212 million people spent $45 billion shopping in retail stores and websites over the Black Friday weekend. And it’s not always happy holiday cheer – people can get pretty cranky in their pursuit of a bargain.
A few years ago, we reported on the the death of a worker trampled by crowds in a Long Island, NY during a Walmart “Black Friday” sale. Crowd control experts would say that the term “trampling is imprecise:

“Crowd forces can reach levels that almost impossible to resist or control. Virtually all crowd deaths are due to compressive asphyxia and not the “trampling” reported by the news media. Evidence of bent steel railings after several fatal crowd incidents show that forces of more than 4500N (1,000lbs) occurred. Forces are due to pushing, and the domino effect of people leaning against each other.”

Since that unfortunate event, WalMart has spent nearly $2 million fighting the $7,000 fine imposed by OSHA. History was not in the retailer’s favor: in the three prior years, thronging crowds had popped the hinges off the doors of the same store. And as it got closer to the 5 a.m. opening, the crowd was rowdy enough that a regional WalMart executive suggested that they not open the doors because police were not present, a suggestion that the store manager did not take.
It may seem counterproductive to spend so much money to contest a modest fine (the maximum penalty amount for a serious violation allowed under the law), but WalMart was actually trying to prevent a precedent from being established. Retail industry groups do not want the “government micromanaging how sales are conducted.” Two years after the WalMart stampede, OSHA issued Crowd Management Safety Guidelines for Retailers (PDF), which offered guidance for various crowd control measures, including suggestions for major changes to the first-come, first-serve way that many sales events are held.
In October, the National Retail Federation issued its own guidance in the form of Effective Crowd Management: Guidelines on how to maintain the safety and security of your customers, employees and store. Retailers can download a copy of the 22-page document, which discusses crowd control for planned events such as sales, promotions, and celebrity appearances, as well as for unplanned events such as the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) protests, comedic flash mobs, and organized criminal gangs.
Criminal shoplifting gangs are nothing new – retailers have long been plagued by groups of “grab and run” gangs that descend in numbers on a store and distract employees. What’s different today is the efficiency with which they can organize using mobile phones and social media. Although the National Retail Foundation has noted that media distorts the threat of the so-called criminal flash mobs. These are not to be confused with the much more benign and often entertaining flash mobs that occasionally stage improvisational musical or dance events in retail establishments. But despite whether they are amusing to the public or not, “spontaneous” unplanned events still pose a crowd control and security challenge to the workers.

Annals of Compensability: Violence as a “Normal” Working Condition

Thursday, September 22nd, 2011

Here is a very interesting case from Pennsylvania, where the definition of “normal working conditions” is fraught with terror (and which, as a result, closes the door to comp compensability while potentially opening another to lawsuits). But in our excitement to discuss this intriguing case, we get ahead of ourselves.
Greg Kochanowicz worked as a manager for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board. That might sound like an enforcement job, but ironically, his job was selling liquor from a retail outlet. On April 28, 2008, a masked man entered the store, pointed two guns at Greg and a co-worker, and forced them to empty the safe and cash register. The robber prodded the back of Greg’s head with one of the guns. After getting the cash, the robber used duct tape to tie Greg and his co-worker to chairs in the office. There was no physical harm – just the threat of violence if Greg did not cooperate.
Following this incident, Greg suffered from anxiety, depression and flashbacks. He was too traumatized to return to work. Diagnosed with PTSD, he collected temporary total benefits under workers comp for what Pennsylvania calls a “psychic” injury. (It is worth noting that in 1981 Greg’s brother was stabbed to death in a robbery, an incident for which Greg received no counseling or support.)
Abnormal Justice
Greg’s employer appealed the WCJ ruling. A split panel of judges (4-3) reversed the finding of compensability on the basis that armed robberies were a “normal” working condition – and only “abnormal” working conditions lead to compensability for PTSD/”psychic” injuries. That’s a very interesting notion, indeed.
In its reversal, the appeals court noted that robberies were quite common among the Liquor Control Board stores: in the five county area, there were 99 robberies since 2002, an average of one a month. In addition, employees were acutely aware of the risks. They received a written pamphlet entitled “Things you should know about armed robbery.” Greg had read the booklet and received training related to it. In fact, he followed the employer’s written protocol to the letter, thereby avoiding bodily harm to himself and his co-worker.
The appeals court is saying that armed robberies should come as no surprise to liquor board employees. They have been forewarned. And in the view of a majority of the judges, forewarned is foreclosed: there can be no compensability for a psychic injury as a result of normal working conditions. (Had Greg been shot, however, he would have had a compensable injury.)
OSHA to the Rescue?
The appeals court states that having a gun pressed to the back of the head is a “normal” working condition. If this is indeed true, then the employer has put employees in a workplace that is fraught with risk. This is something employers are not allowed to do.
Here is OSHA’s General Duty Clause:

“Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

If the court is correct, if armed robberies are a “normal” working condition, then the employer has failed to eliminate an unacceptable risk. By leaving unarmed employees in high risk areas, they are out of compliance with OSHA standards. Given their knowledge of the likelihood of robberies, they should place armed guards in each store, particularly in evening hours. Their failure to protect employees from an all-too-routine hazard is unacceptable and may be grounds for lawsuits.
This case is wending its way toward the PA Supreme Court, where the arguments of the dissenting judges, led by Renee Cohn Jubelirer, are likely to prevail. Greg will probably qualify once again for workers comp. Yes, he received training in violence; he was well aware of the risks in his job; he even handled the situation with exemplary composure. But there is nothing normal about having a gun pressed into the back of your head, unless you are an actor taping a cop show for cable TV.

Attention Shoppers: Walmart is Expanding Health Care options for Workers

Monday, October 24th, 2005

The Insider has tracked the impact of Walmart, the nation’s largest retailer, with considerable interest. We have no idea what happens to employees who file workers compensation claims, but we would guess that the company is ferociously aggressive in applying claims management/denial techniques. As with many employers, the company’s workers comp problems are compounded by the fact that more than half of their employees lack health insurance. That is about to change.
The Good News
We read in today’s New York Times (registration required) that Walmart is significantly expanding the health insurance options for its workers. The good news concerning the company’s new health insurance plan is its cost. This is a relatively inexpensive plan — as low as $11 month for individual coverage, $37 for a single parent and $67 for families. Individuals could visit a doctor three times before paying a deductible, an arrangement aimed at encouraging workers to seek preventive care. In the past, workers have had to pay a deductible before their insurance kicked in.
The Squeeze
That’s the good news. This being Walmart, we better look at the details. When Walmart says that monthly premiums would cost between 40 percent and 60 percent less than those for any existing Wal-Mart insurance policy, we need to find out why. The plan carries a $1000 deductible — a big number for most people and one which represents over 5% of the annual income for many Walmart workers. In the first year, total payments under the plan are capped at $25,000, so workers had best plan their catastrophic illnesses only after they are beyond their one year anniversary. In addition, out-of-pocket payments range from $300 for prescriptions to $1,000 for hospital stays.
As with many types of insurance, this plan works best for people who don’t need it. It’s a good fit for workers who are young and healthy, as opposed to those who are older and more vulnerable to illness. It’s one thing to have an annual check up with no follow up visits. It’s quite another for an older Wal-Mart employee, who might visit a doctor three times in a one month and then need to pay $1,000 before the company would share the cost of care. The last time I wandered through a Walmart, I saw more people likely to run up against the deductible than those who would not.
Bottom Lines and Health Care
Perhaps Walmart has taken the recent spate of bad publicity to heart. Sure, their prices are low, but consumers may have begun to balk when a company hires illegal immigrants to clean their facilities and then locks them in to prevent theft, or when many company employees end up on public assistance because they lack health insurance.
The Walmart model will be closely watched from all sides. Wall Street and Wal-Mart investors will scrutinize the bottom line, tracking the impact of the new benefits on Walmart’s profitability. There are a number of analysts hoping that the Walmart plan will prove a useful model to others in controlling spiralling health costs. On the other hand, consumer and worker advocates will focus on the impact of the premiums and the deductibles on the quality of health care available to workers. We are a long way from resolving this problem, but it is encouraging to see Walmart step into the health care arena. Whether it’s a step in the right direction remains to be seen.

Walmart locks night shift workers in

Sunday, January 18th, 2004

The New York Times today features a shocking story on night shift employees who are locked in at Walmart and its affiliated stores. (free registration required) In a work practice that seems like something out of a Dickens novel or a third world sweatshop, exits are locked at night under the guise of protecting workers. The article relates the story of one employee, Michael Rodriguez of Corpus Christi, TX, who waited hours to get help for a crushed ankle because all exits but the fire exit were locked, and there was no manager with a key. He had been led to believe that he and his supervisor would both be fired if he used the fire exit.

“The reason for Mr. Rodriguez’s delayed trip to the hospital was a little-known Wal-Mart policy: the lock-in. For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, such as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers’ wives have gone into labor.”

Company spokespeople maintain the practice is to protect workers who work in high crime areas, but employees and other industry insiders say the practice is primarily to curtail “shrinkage” or theft.
It’s boggling to know that such draconian work environments still exist in this country. A little over 12 years ago, 25 workers lost their lives while trying to kick down doors in a fiery inferno in a chicken processing plant in North Carolina. Yet the practice still persists, although one might think these would be isolated incidents rather than accepted policy in the world’s most prominent retailer.
There is no more fundamental mandate than worker safety. Not only is protecting workers the right thing to do, it’s usually the cheapest thing to do in terms of risk management.