Counties are battling to protect their employees from the dangers of COVID-19. Some are providing free virus testing and face coverings and are taking steps to deep clean office buildings. It can be trickier to protect employees from members of the public who are angry about virus-related restrictions.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines call for wearing a mask in public settings and observing social distancing to prevent infection, but there is no federal mandate requiring these practices. Some states and municipalities do have ordinances requiring face masks; the list changes as new hotspots develop around the United States.
Miami-Dade has provided a reusable face mask with filter for every county employee, noted Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez.
“We must set the example for our community. We must all take the precautions to reduce the spread of coronavirus COVID-19. By wearing a face mask, you are taking care of yourself, your family and your co-workers and our community,” he said in a statement.
In the statement, he added: “As is the case with any dress code, it is expected that all face masks worn by Miami-Dade County employees are appropriate and represent Miami-Dade County well.”
Some county offices provide free disposable face coverings not only for employees but for anyone conducting business in county facilities so that they can comply with state or local ordinances.
But county employees everywhere have seen the videos and heard the stories of angry people who refuse to wear masks when they are required to do so in public: A Colorado worker who was shot by a customer who refused the restaurant’s request for customers to wear masks. A Target employee who suffered a broken arm in California during a fight with customers who refused to comply with a city ordinance.
And in Bexar County, Texas, a customer who refused requests to wear a mask slapped the hand of the country judge — who signed the county’s mask order — when the judge tried to intervene in the dispute.
How can workers be equipped to handle tirades, and possibly assaults, from irate citizens in government offices?
In Morris County, N.J. government buildings are mostly closed to the public, Communications Director Larry Ragonese said July 8. But there are sheriff’s officers and security officers at each building and “they would enforce requirement of use of face coverings by anyone entering or in the buildings.”
It’s not just law enforcement officials who should know how to handle irate, potentially violent people, according to Oscar Villanueva, managing director of Security Services for R3 Continuum.
Employees in all types of settings should receive training on how to defuse workplace conflicts.
“It’s important to socialize all employees in what hostility is, and how to respond,” said Villanueva, who consults with organizations on crisis response and workplace violence preparedness.
He offers tips for any worker who feels threatened by a member of the public:
- Communicate your concerns professionally. Keep in mind that it is not personal.
- Reference the safety needs of both parties reminding people, “Wearing a mask is a good idea to keep us both safe from infection.”
- Work to understand their position and show empathy with comments such as, “I understand wearing a mask is uncomfortable, it takes a while to get used to it.”
- Ask for the person’s help in resolving the issue.
- Present alternatives to defuse the issue. If applicable, say, “They are hard to come by, but I happen to have an extra mask you can use today.”
- Seek assistance from a manager or superior.
In addition to providing conflict-resolution training, another way to reassure employees that their safety is important is to make sure that proper cleaning procedures are being followed.
Beyond routine janitorial services, employees should see that high-traffic-area cleaning is being done and that deep cleaning is performed after any known or suspected COVID-19 case in a facility.
Managers and supervisors should be mindful of employees who have health-related concerns. Counties may face claims from employees who say they have disabilities that prevent them from safely wearing masks and officials need to provide clear guidance for handling such claims.
Alameda County, Calif., for example, states that exceptions to the requirement will be made and a face covering will not be required if:
A medical professional has advised that wearing a face-covering may pose a risk to the person wearing it for health-related reasons. The guidelines require that documentation from a medical provider be provided to the employee’s supervisor;
Wearing a face covering would create a risk to the person related to their work as determined by local, state or federal regulators or workplace safety guidelines.