The online battle for the mental health of service workerson July 16, 2020 at 5:24 pm

Morgan Eckroth became famous on TikTok as morgandrinkscoffee. A 21-year-old barista and social-media manager for Tried & True Coffee in Corvallis, Oregon, she shares latte art, dramatic reenactments of customer interactions, and drink tutorials with her 4 million followers. Before the pandemic her content was pretty wholesome–she likes her job! But then in May, someone who was angry about the shop’s temporary safety policy against handling cash assaulted her and a coworker with bear mace.

In a TikTok video Eckroth made about the incident, she was in bed with covers pulled up over her mouth and nose as calming music played. “We don’t deserve this when we are just trying to keep ourselves and customers safe,” read one of the captions. The video has more than 1.3 million views, and Eckroth was flooded with supportive comments.

Nearly every day, a story about a confrontation between a service employee and a shopper or diner upset about pandemic-related safety requirements makes news in the US. Messages exchanged on TikTok, in private Facebook groups, and in other semi-private online spaces have become a form of homebrewed therapy for workers trying to deal with the stress. But alongside this ecosystem of service-worker support is another organizational structure: the private and semi-private online spaces where Americans who refuse to wear masks or abide by other safety requirements promote protests and boycotts over mask policies, and support those who show up in public places without one.

As in every other online information war, these narratives compete for your attention and spread through social-media platforms that remain extremely good at helping misinformation peddlers reach bigger audiences. But unmasked customers, whether motivated by apathy or activism, are a stressful burden for service workers who are largely left to enforce pandemic safety measures in stores and restaurants. And in many instances, these workers are using social media to advocate for themselves and explain the damage these confrontations can do to their mental health.

“There’s a new sense of bonding between people who work in customer service right now,” Eckroth said. “The fact that most of us have had to work people-facing jobs through the pandemic on or near minimum wage has created a whole new community online.”

TikTok was already something of a haven for retail and food service workers before the pandemic, when employees of restaurants and retail chains used the app to vent and share about their work days. Then, when the pandemic hit, jokes and memes gave way to stories of assault, threats, and verbal abuse from anti-mask activists who visited their stores. Suddenly, these clusters of creators and viewers became a kind of support group.

Support can be found elsewhere, too. In a private 5,000-member Facebook group called Retail Life during Covid-19, workers vent about customer confrontations, confusing management directives, and unemployment payment delays. Working in a store now is like “being held hostage by these people who don’t give a shit about me, or you,” wrote one member, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their job, after encountering a mostly maskless group of shoppers who lingered in the store.

Workers in service jobs have long endured stressful conditions for low pay. Many of these workers now face unemployment, fears about job security, and the daily dangers inherent in serving others during a pandemic. On top of all that, the pandemic has made dangerous encounters with customers more frequent–and social media has made such interactions more visible.

Some videos about these encounters have gotten thousands of views: At a Skechers store in Oklahoma City, a customer was caught on video throwing shoeboxes at an employee’s head after being asked to wear a mask. And a Florida insurance agent was fired after he was filmed yelling at a Costco employee when asked why he wasn’t wearing a face covering.

Judy Herrell, the owner of Herrell’s ice cream shop in Northampton, Massachusetts, posted on Facebook begging customers to treat her employees with respect after a customer threw ice cream at one upon learning the shop was not allowing people to eat inside.

Her post got some attention, though Herrell said her store sees many more confrontations than she was able to describe in the post.

“We’re getting one every couple of days, sometimes two or three,” she says. Some of her employees have decided to seek counseling.

There’s an “overall climate of tremendous anxiety” among restaurant workers right now, says John Vincent, a professor of psychology at the University of Houston who is supervising a university program that gives free therapy to restaurant workers in the area. The program, which is a collaboration with a Texas-based crisis relief organization for the food industry, was designed to address concerns about the mental health of these employees, who often do not have access to affordable mental health care. It had been in the works for several years when the pandemic began, prompting coordinators to move the start date up. They launched about a month ago.

States have different rules about wearing masks in public: about 20 currently have mask mandates in place. The US Centers for Disease Control now recommends that people wear cloth face coverings in public to prevent the spread of the coronavirus (although, famously, the agency initially told residents not to wear them). Businesses follow local and state guidelines on masks or, in some cases, set their own policies. As these requirements and recommendations have become a part of daily life, a conspiracy-fueled movement to oppose mask wearing has gained traction on social media, often tapping into the same networks of influencers and communities that have spread other health misinformation.

I found Bare Face Is Legal, a private Facebook group with more than 20,000 members, via a recommendation from a natural healing private Facebook group I’m in that regularly promotes bogus cures or treatments for cancer. In one video posted to the Bare Face Is Legal group, which was also shared publicly, a woman who identifies herself as a nurse films masked store employees and customers as she asserts that she has a right to be in the store without a mask, before law enforcement convinces her to leave. The video has nearly 30,000 views.

The group is an offshoot of Barefoot Is Legal, a Facebook group and nonprofit run by Dave Kelman that promotes going barefoot in public as a legal right. As Mel Magazine noted in a 2018 profile of Kelman and his movement, that group’s online presence is not explicitly political or conspiratorial. However, the piece states that Kelman himself runs an online radio station that plays “a lot of programming on refusing vaccines and ‘fighting the New World Order.'”

Kelman says that he believes that the vast majority of mask wearers have “just been pressured” into wearing them by “social justice warriors” and the mainstream media. He cited a debunked claim popular in anti-mask circles that wearing a mask over a long period of time can cause an oxygen deficiency, or carbon dioxide toxicity.

The group generally talks about mask policies as a civil rights issue, using terms such as “discrimination.” This sentiment echoes flyers that circulated on social media in April and encouraged those opposed to wearing masks to claim that they had a medical condition and were exempt from the requirements. As Snopes noted, the Americans with Disabilities Act does not protect people pretending to have a disability. For those who are covered by the US federal law, the ADA would require businesses to make reasonable accommodations, which could include curbside or home delivery.

Other Bare Face Is Legal members trade strategies for avoiding or confronting employees who ask them about masks, tell anecdotes about being able to shop mask free, discuss stores to boycott, and share links to local anti-mask protests. One user discussed a strategy for getting away with not wearing a mask for a four-hour plane ride: by eating nonstop for the entire flight.

Kelman said he agrees that it’s unfair to see service workers “getting beat up on this” when they’re tasked with enforcing mask-related rules, and that he believes these protests should be aimed at the government. However, like in many anti-mask spaces, members of his group also celebrate videos of customers who refuse to wear a mask and become angry when asked to by employees or other shoppers. A recent post shared by administrators to the related public Bare Face is Legal page encouraged people to film interactions with store managers who refuse them entry, but to be “respectful.”

As the pandemic progresses, these confrontations don’t seem to be slowing down. Anti-mask protesters have filmed themselves destroying mask displays in stores and trying to enter businesses that require masks, and they’ve posted photographs to social media of employees who decline to serve them. They’ve promoted Etsy listings for mesh masks–which wouldn’t stop the spread of the virus–claiming that these designs are a loophole to rules requiring them.

Vincent, the University of Houston professor supervising a free therapy service for area restaurant workers, says the program had more than 50 referrals in three weeks and underscores the need for greater access to affordable health care, including mental health care, in the United States. Programs like his can help meet that need to a degree, but the industry was already facing a mental health crisis before the pandemic began, and now that crisis is undeniably worse.

For Vincent, there’s one small silver lining: he feels that more people are starting to talk openly about mental health in the restaurant industry and beyond. “There’s a growing cognizance of ‘we are all human,'” he says.

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