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Industry Insights

Young: An Epidemic of Violence Against Workers

  • State: California

There's an epidemic of violence against California workers.

Julius Young

Julius Young

A recent example was the April 18 slaying of Blake Mohs, a 26-year-old loss prevention worker at Home Depot in Pleasanton. Mohs was shot to death when he confronted a shoplifter who was taking a toolbox from the store.

Last week, a passenger attacked a United flight attendant at SFO.

But so much violence against workers goes unreported in the press. Mass casualty events and some gun shootings get coverage, as they should. But most violent incidents against workers receive no attention in the media.

Here is a stunning list of seven actual cases Dennis Popalardo and I at Boxer and Gerson have handled in the past six months alone:

  • A Safeway employee in Alameda was threatened and then punched in the head by a person, one of several individuals he observed throwing and destroying store merchandise.
  • A Save Mart grocery employee in Oakland was punched in the head and knocked down after she held the cart of a shoplifter who moved past the self-checkout without paying.
  • A manager of a business in Pittsburg was threatened with a gun by an employee upset that he was being terminated for being a no-call, no-show at work. Luckily, although the trigger was pulled, the gun failed to discharge.
  • A San Francisco public school employee was assaulted with a baton by an employee of the San Francisco Parks and Recreation Department while the school employee was attempting to convince some students to leave the park bathroom.
  • A Lucky Supermarkets employee in San Leandro was hit in the head with a projectile thrown by a shoplifter. The shoplifter had been escorted out of the store by security but came back to assault the worker.
  • A United Parcel Service driver was assaulted by a customer as she walked away from an Oakland apartment after delivering a package. She was punched in the back of the head and kicked after she fell down.
  • A person unknown to anyone at UPS came inside a facility near the Oakland airport and knocked out a worker while he was sorting packages on a belt conveyor. This happened in full view of other employees.

Keep in mind that these incidents are only from one workers' comp caseload over the past six months. They are the proverbial "canary in a coal mine" showing that there is a widespread societal problem here in California.

We can represent these workers and help them get the medical treatment and benefits they deserve, but more is required from worker advocates.

The specific causes of the seven incidents outlined above do vary. But mental health and/or sheer criminality appear to be at the heart of each incident.

California is failing in both areas.

If you talk to California grocery employees and other retail workers, they'll tell you that shoplifting is rampant. Aggressive shoplifters confront employees and sometimes work together in organized ways. Proposition 47, misleadingly named the Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, reclassified thefts of under $950 as misdemeanors rather than felonies, opening the door to widespread shoplifting and a lawless climate.

The anti-incarceration community may be happy, but California workers are suffering. A lawless work environment puts them at risk for the kind of incidents noted above.

Another problem: California has for too long not devoted resources to mental health.

We see severe mental health challenges on the avenues of some of the cities such as San Francisco, where a toxic stew of homelessness, drug addiction, street trash, criminal behavior, mental instability of some individuals and an understaffed police force adds to the malaise. Retail flees, downtown workers continue to work from home, and some streets become open-air drug markets or places to buy and sell stolen merchandise. 

But violence against workers is a statewide problem and not just in a few urban settings.

California's mental health system and our educational system appear to be failing us. Many mental health professionals and teachers are burned out. And a significant number of Californians are impatient, entitled and resistant to rules and authority, quick to anger and willing to resolve their annoyance and disputes with violence. California workers are often bearing the brunt of this.

Legislative allies of those people will ultimately need to make some hard choices. This blog focuses on workers' comp, but injury prevention should be a big priority of labor and worker allies.

These are big societal problems. Patience is running thin. 

Julius Young is an applicants' attorney and a partner for the Boxer & Gerson law firm in Oakland. This column was reprinted with his permission from his Workers Comp Zone blog on the firm's website.

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