By now you’ve seen the countless videos on Twitter or your local news. “Karens,” who Black Twitter has long used to describe the entitled white woman with her hair in a bob who demands to see the store’s manager, and in recent years have weaponized their race to call 9-1-1 on the smallest transgressions, in recent weeks have summed up what’s gone wrong with America’s response to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Other Karens have shown up at protests against quarantines, reminding us that the zombie apocalypse is already here and now. At a time when many of us are in lockdown, Karens are a cultural phenomenon that helps us pass the time . . . be it watching their antics, rolling our eyes at the memes and becoming even more exasperated at the state of the world.
There’s more than a few Instagram accounts focused on tantrums these people have thrown, which can make working a shift at a retail story a living hell. (In fairness, there is no shortage of “Kevins” and “Kyles,” too; in India, he’s Suresh.)
To be clear, Karens aren’t the norm. Most consumers act civilly as they load up their grocery carts or pick up a latte, although deep sighs of annoyance can often be heard in store aisles — after all, it’s central to the American spirit to express annoyance when someone from above is telling us what to do.
The problem is that the lurking threats of Karens visiting a retail location is on the mind of many retail workers — and the very threats of verbal and even physical assaults are a daily reality. Add that burden to uneven paychecks, a stressful work environment and the ongoing risks of being exposed to COVID-19, and the results can become toxic.
Now, retail workers find themselves deemed collateral damage in the cultural wars over wearing masks in public spaces.
“Mixed messaging and politicization have turned a public health safeguard into a lightning-rod issue,” Washington Post retail reporter Abha Bhattarai wrote last week. “As a result, workers have been berated, even assaulted, by aggressive anti-maskers.”
The emotional toll on retail workers is often not worth the low hourly wages for which they work.
“It’s gotten to the point where my shrinking paycheck isn’t worth it anymore,” one retail employee told TriplePundit on the condition that her name and employer were kept anonymous. “At any given moment, someone will go off on us, and it just makes for a miserable shift. This job I once loved . . . I now hate.”
Confused messaging coming from all levels of government has contributed to this crisis. Public health officials, mayors and county executives will make decisions they believe, based on science and data, are in the best interest of residents. But they can be overruled by a governor, and of course the antics of the White House’s current occupant hasn’t helped matters. When those perched at the highest pinnacles of power won’t wear a mask, it’s no wonder individuals feel as if they can conduct themselves in public however they please. The difference is that the president has no shortage of COVID-19 tests at his disposal to keep him protected. Retail workers making $10 to $12 an hour do not have that security.
And even if there’s a local or statewide ordinance requiring the use of masks, enforcing it is an entirely different matter. At a time when police departments nationwide have come under fire for how they’ve responded to Black people doing things white people know they can do without a second thought, few police chiefs can stomach the thought of having to cite a scofflaw citizen or business.
Many companies, however, are adding to the chaos, leaving workers with the sense they have been thrown under the bus. Some corporations, to their credit, have bucked up as it is clear many employees feel as if Karens have more access to the manager than they do. Starbucks, for example, will start requiring customers entering their stores to wear masks this Wednesday, July 15.
But while the coffee giant had requested such action since it reopened many of its stores in May, some customers bellyached over such an ask — including a woman in San Diego who publicly shamed a barista for asking her to wear a mask. Lenin Guteirrez eventually netted tips worth $100,000 in a crowdfunding campaign after he was hushed by his manager to stop commenting about the incident. Many other baristas, however, who have also had to deal with boorish behavior, haven’t been so fortunate.
Other U.S. retailers have been far slower to act than Starbucks, which at the onset of this pandemic was a model of how to get things done and protect workers. One survey in May revealed that while many companies had boosted their cleaning and sanitizing efforts, the majority were slow to require protective masks and gloves — and the number of companies providing such equipment were few and far between.
In addition, the pandemic bonuses that became the norm in March have largely been rescinded. Starbucks and Kroger are among the companies that rolled back their higher pay rates just as the U.S. continues to set new records for COVID-19 cases day after day.
Add the fact that many of these companies profess to “stand” with the Black Lives Matter movement, only to tell employees masks or items of clothing that express such support are not allowed to be worn during their shifts, often in the name of a “dress code,” it’s no wonder many of their employees dread showing up for work.
Some chains have taken drastic measures, such as L.A's Hugo Tacos, which decided to simply close up up shop rather than allow their employees to suffer constant abuse; a crowdfunding page launched as an employee support fund, thankfully, exceeded its goal.
But for the most part, many retail executives are playing that classic, tired and, in the long run, losing management game: kiss up, and kick down. They’ll take credit for the positive press for publicly supporting employees’ health and alignment with the push to end racism in America, but the overriding message to employees is vastly different. Karens can see the mixed signals when they enter a Trader Joe’s or Costco, and the lack of leadership within America's companies only emboldens them.
As a society, we’re better than this. But corporate America so far has been leading from behind when it comes to protecting everyday workers from feeling vulnerable while they are on the clock.
Image credit: Becker1999/Wiki Commons
Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010, and became its Executive Editor in 2018. He's based in Fresno, CA, from where he happily explores California’s stellar Central Coast and the national parks in the Sierra Nevadas. He's lived in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay, and has traveled to over 70 countries. He's an alum of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California.