Health Advice



'I'm not TSA. I'm a bartender': Workers say they're defenseless when customers don't wear masks

By Juliana Feliciano Reyes, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Health & Fitness

PHILADELPHIA - When she was working as a cashier this summer at a Walmart store in Northeast Philadelphia, a 20-year-old woman said she would see customers wearing their masks under their chins or not wearing one at all, but "it didn't make sense to make a whole big scene," especially if the line at her register was long. She worried that her manager would get mad at her if she slowed down the line while dealing with maskless customers.

At a Philadelphia Rite Aid, a worker in her 60s was instructed to alert her manager if a customer was refusing to put on a mask. But managers, she said, usually don't want to get involved.

And at a Rittenhouse Square Starbucks, a 24-year-old barista said that sometimes customers get belligerent when she asks them to put on a mask. They ask for her name and say they'll file a complaint with corporate, before storming out. Add that to the list of other inconsiderate things customers do, she said, like stick their heads around the acrylic glass barrier that's meant to protect both workers and customers.

"People act like our safety doesn't matter," said the barista, who, like most of the workers interviewed for this story, asked that her name not be used out of fear of retaliation at work.

As shutdown orders lift and businesses slowly reopen, low-wage service workers are once again at high risk of exposure to COVID-19 - and they have to deal with a whole range of customers, including those who believe it's their constitutional right not to wear a mask. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says wearing one properly limits the spread of the virus.

Workers say their employers have largely left them to fend for themselves. While most representatives from big-box chains interviewed for this story agreed that masks must be worn in their stores and that worker and customer safety was of the highest importance, none shared a plan that outlined enforcement of mask policy.


"If a customer doesn't want to wear a face covering, our health ambassadors notify a member of management, who will talk to the customer and try to find a solution," Walmart spokesperson Casey Staheli said.

Starbucks spokesperson Ana Rigby said, "For customers who are not wearing facial coverings, our partners have received guidance to offer alternative options for customers to order their Starbucks."

And at Rite Aid, "if a customer doesn't have a face covering," spokesperson Christopher Savarese said, "Rite Aid has masks available free of charge."

Corporations' unwillingness to take a hard-line stance on masks is unacceptable, said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the New York City-based Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, which represents 100,000 workers around the country.


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