Coronavirus: When retail gets a dose of xenophobia

Shouldn’t retail employees of all races have more of a right to dodge their ‘sick’ customers?

Shamontiel L. Vaughn
Feb 9 · 5 min read
Photo credit: Riki/Unsplash

Coronavirus is attacking victims left and right. The virus has infected thousands and killed approximately 910 people and sickened more than 40,000. Although almost all of the deaths have been in mainland China, there was also a fatality in Hong Kong and one in the Philippines. Unfortunately, the scare of this virus resembles the flu and is too easy to mistake one for the other.

Although the Los Angeles Times reports that the flu has killed roughly 10,000 Americans since October, coronavirus is still more buzzworthy these days. However, because of the region in which coronavirus is most pronounced, the scare has transitioned into xenophobia and is affecting Asian people in the U.S. — retail employees included.

Photo credit: Freshh Connection/Unsplash

In an LA Times report, a West Hollywood retail customer in the clothing store Aape asked a cashier to give him a new cloth face mask. When the 22-year-old Asian cashier asked the customer why he wanted a new one, the male customer reportedly told him “because you touched it.”

Fear of the unknown has put retail businesses, customers and employees (specifically Asian ones) in an uncomfortable spot. In a situation like this, it was a given that someone would leave unhappy. While it’s not clear what the result was for this cashier and customer, this also brings up a larger question when it comes to retail employee safety: Should retailers be more flexible when it comes to protecting their employees against potential health concerns? Should employers do a better job of protecting their employees from racial profiling? And when will management realize that some sales are simply not worth it in exchange for belittlement?


Retail can be as germ-filled as a kindergarten classroom

Americans have a complicated history when it comes to calling in sick regardless. According to Working America (the community affiliate of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, or AFL-CIO), four in 10 private sector workers don’t have any paid sick days. For hourly employees, temporary employment workers and independent contractors, there is no option for paid sick days. When non-full-timers don’t arrive at work, they don’t get paid. So workers drag themselves to their out-of-home assignments anyway.

And depending on the company, and when the employee started the job, using vacation and sick time may not be an option. Some businesses utilize a point system, in which workers gain sick days from work days. Any time-off requests would be subtracted from those credits and can end up with a negative balance. So if people are showing up to their own jobs when they’re not up to it, these ill people are probably also showing up to pharmacies, drug stores and even malls, spreading germs around to others.

Photo credit: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

It’s easy enough to write this behavior off as selfish, but these visits to retail stores could be for a variety of reasons, including just replenishing medicine or running a quick errand. Either way, chances are high that retail employees have experienced a customer or two blowing their noses, sneezing, coughing or exhibiting other behavior that looks like the person is ill. And retail employees, along with any customer-centered job, are always at risk of exchanging money, clothing and food that could be contaminated.

In a place like Japan, where it’s not unusual to wear a surgical mask, the face protection comes in handy when people are sick. But in America, this would widely be considered overreacting and probably result in an employee being asked to remove the mask. Wearing surgical masks on a regular basis just isn’t common in American culture, regardless of the health perks — even in retail locations where health hubs are becoming the norm. And one employee in Australia was first barred and then terminated for refusing to take her face mask off — even when she had a cold.

So retail employees are at risk of having to work with co-workers who are sick, customers who are sick, managers who are sick and everyone else. And, judging from this instance in Australia, they may not even have a right to wear face masks to protect themselves from others. Either don’t show up and get no pay, or come to work and deal with the risks. Then here comes the coronavirus paranoia to add insult to injury, and put certain employees at risk of dealing with xenophobia on top of sick consumers.


As a former retail employee, I understand the paranoia of getting sick. But in no way, shape or form will I defend the customer who wanted a new clothing face mask simply because an Asian person “touched” it. Because if the tables were turned, a retail employee would be terminated for telling a customer to go get a replacement [insert product here] simply for “touching” inventory items. That’s what cashiers are supposed to do.

If consumers cannot get past their own xenophobic thoughts (and other forms of racism) when dealing with anyone outside of their homes, just stay in bed. Have a “sick” day on behalf of the public.


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Shamontiel L. Vaughn

Written by

15-year vegetarian journalist/editor; Wag! dog walker; Rover dog sitter; Toastmasters member and 4x officer; WERQ dance enthusiast; Visit Shamontiel.com

Window Shopping

If you’re into retail and food news, business tips and Internet shopping, read on.

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