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Continued mask use, risk of exposure and misbehaving customers burden retail workers

The wellbeing of workers in the service sector is at risk due to the coronavirus crisis, trade union chair said.

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As Christmas sales approach, visitor numbers in stores are on the rise, increasing the risk of staff being exposed to the coronavirus. Image: Henrietta Hassinen / Yle

Finland's service workers' union PAM is worried about workers in the retail sector being overburdened during the coronavirus crisis.

“I am very concerned about the wellbeing of all workers in the service sector,” said Sirpa Laakso, chair of Service Union United PAM's council.

Stores have been receiving a lot of feedback about other customers’ lack of mask usage that affects the safety and wellbeing of employees.

"Wearing masks and visors all day can result in voice hoarseness in the evening and dryness of the throat. There is also concern about how much protection visors and masks will ultimately provide. It's a huge psychosocial burden," Laakso said.

No restrictions on customer numbers

As Christmas sales approach, visitor numbers in stores are on the rise, increasing the risk of staff being exposed to the coronavirus.

“Shops can still take as many customers as they can fit,” Laakso said.

Customer service representatives come into contact with a herd of people during the day, so the risk of coronavirus is constantly present.

Although it is recommended for masks to be used inside shops, their use is still not common. Masks are not used for health reasons, for instance. Staff members can also state reasons for being unable to wear them.

"Many understand that some people have health reasons why a mask cannot be used. Some staff members have reported having panic attacks because of wearing a mask, so the reasons behind not wearing one are not always clear-cut," Laakso said.

There are also daily reports from people about people not complying with social distancing recommendations enough, especially in the checkout queue. Customers also often forget to keep their distance from staff members.

Mask rage from customers

Some customers monitor the use of masks by other people in stores and often behave aggressively or in a way that they wouldn’t without the mask on.

According to tabloid Iltalehti, inappropriate customer behaviour has been on the rise over the autumn, and it is often targeted at staff members. PAM has also noted the phenomenon of mask rage and finds it concerning.

Laakso said anxiety and frustration often get taken out on staff members.

She said that when talking about those working on the frontline of the coronavirus crisis, the focus is often only on healthcare workers. However, people in customer service have also continued to work in uncomfortable protective equipment, with no choice to work remotely.

Their workload has also increased following the added emphasis on increased hygiene measures and cleanliness.

In some stores, cleaning responsibilities fall on the store's employees. If this is the case, sufficient time should be assigned by the employer to account for the extra cleaning.

"All credit to the caretakers working through this crisis, but we shouldn’t forget about the shop staff, security guards and property managers," Laakso said.

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