A woman wears a face mask as she buys food at a coffee shop at Penn Station in New York on August 2, 2021. (Getty Images)

Since the onset of the pandemic, front-line workers nationwide have contended with abuse from mask-resistant customers for enforcing mask rules in their places of work. For Black, Indigenous, and other workers of color, this has meant facing additional risks to their safety as COVID-19 continues to disproportionately damage their communities. And now that mask requirements are returning to combat rising infection and hospitalization rates, BIPOC front-line workers are worried about dealing with increasingly hostile customers.

“I’ve had several people actually try to fight me,” said Keanu, an AAPI security professional who moonlights working the doors at clubs in Colorado. “You try to keep positive customer service in mind, but some people just don’t want to hear it. I hear everything from ‘COVID is a hoax’ to ‘masks don’t work’ to ‘this is just stupid.’” 

Some workers have been attacked or even killed for trying to enforce mask mandates, an outsized risk to ask workers of color to face when they’re often being paid at or below the poverty line. Now, many are in the impossible position of providing for themselves and their families while attempting to evade COVID-19, handle demanding customers who might engage in racist harassment or worse, and maintain their mental health. 

In Florida, a young Latinx animal shelter employee in Miami-Dade County (currently experiencing its highest-ever level of hospitalizations from COVID-19) shared that potential volunteers often become dismissive or combative when told the shelter requires masks be worn, regardless of vaccination status. Many volunteers see themselves as a scarce commodity and regularly threaten to give their time elsewhere. 

“We’re not asking you to [wear a mask] in your personal time, just when you come to volunteer,” the employee said. “And still, people just fight us on it. It can get really heated, which is kind of crazy.”  

Protecting themselves

While front-line workers of color worry about not only protecting themselves from the virus, but also from volatile customers, many can’t afford to lose their income and any health benefits. Even then, the pressure can be too much. As the virus spread rampantly through her department, a Black woman who works at a Florida Walmart and asked not to be named “couldn’t take it anymore” and went on an unpaid leave of absence for her own safety and that of her family.

“My store manager doesn’t care about anybody there,” she said. “So many people [have] COVID and we are down so many [employees]. It’s crazy.”

Keanu has also often felt unsafe during his nights working at rowdy clubs. Newly married, his wife is terrified he might bring the virus back from the club, but Keanu is willing to take the risk to provide them with a stable life. He tries to protect himself by wearing a N95 mask underneath his cloth mask, but he worries for his family, as well as for his coworkers at his daytime security job.

“I don’t know who my guards go home to, so my main concern is for others around me,” Keanu said.

The animal shelter employee shared similar concerns. To ensure the animals’ safety, windows can’t be opened to encourage air flow at the shelter, which adds to the employee’s discomfort. When anyone protests the shelter’s mask rules, there’s little the employee can do if they’re unwilling to comply. 

Mixed messages from the top

Several state-level politicians in Texas and Florida have actively fought against reimposing mask rules. At the local level, some businesses have been lax about how and when they choose to enforce masking. Some conservative leaders have repeated racist claims about the virus, continuing to incite anti-Asian violence and blaming Mexican immigrants for the spike in COVID-19 infection rates. All of these factors embolden mask skeptics and fanatics who argue that their freedoms are being infringed on. 

“Several volunteers who have gotten into it with me have brought up [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis,” the animal shelter employee said. “They yell, ‘Our governor says it’s not an issue and we should listen!’ His words matter. Those words add a lot of fuel to the fire, especially when companies try to do right.”

Many are fearfully bracing for a new wave of “rebellion and anger” in the fall even as large companies such as Walmart, Target, and others now have mask mandates and require employees to be vaccinated for COVID-19. In this confusing, frustrating, and unsafe environment, some workers have been especially angered by the lack of support from their managers. The Walmart employee in Florida shared that even though most of her coworkers faithfully wear their masks, they have overheard the manager making disparaging comments about her department—comprising nearly all BIPOC—when they’ve expressed fear of the virus and mask abuse.

Mask enforcement is also more difficult when customers use wealth as leverage. Keanu noted a double standard at the high-end venues where he works: Even though all employees and customers are required to mask up, those with money to spend on bottle service and tables often spur club owners to look the other way. 

“It’s a nightmare,” he said. “Things get to the point where no matter how hard we try, people will just show up anyway with no mask and most of the time owners will still let them in.”

Whether it’s $10 or $10,000, those with money in hand often display a level of entitlement over the workers who facilitate their experience. Faced with potential danger lurking at the door and in the air, workers are left on their own to defend themselves from the vitriol of disgruntled customers. 

“It’s forced me to know a lot of facts,” the animal shelter employee said. “I’ve had to just defend myself and my organization, so I have to know why we’re doing what we’re doing.” 

Feeling supported by management can be crucial for morale. Keanu and the animal shelter employee credit their direct managers for supporting them and their coworkers, while also acknowledging how those managers are hamstrung by the rules at the top. A Target manager in Texas told Prism he wished there was more that he could personally do for his employees. He knows some customers can “be real nasty,” and cited several interactions where his team members were brought to tears and some even needed to clock out early due to mental distress. 

“It’s hard when our company says one thing and then [Texas Gov. Greg Abbott] says another,” the Texas Target manager said. “I know sometimes our team members are angry with me or they put the blame on me when customers go off, but at the end of the day, it’s my job to enforce the policies.” 

The emotional toll

Outside of physical labor, “service with a smile” takes an underestimated emotional toll. Research indicates that negative interactions with customers can lead to increases in emotional distress, low job satisfaction, poor health outcomes, and high turnover. This burden is especially heavy on BIPOC workers. According to research from professors at Penn State, Black service providers have to smile more widely and affect an enthusiastic tone of voice to override negative racial stereotypes to have their performance rated equally to their white coworkers. In short, white employees can do less emotional labor and still be viewed positively, but Black employees are not given the benefit of the doubt. And when this additional labor is met with aggression or indifference from customers or management, the harm is only amplified.

The animal shelter and Walmart employees also noted how they’ve also dealt with other BIPOC expressing their dissatisfaction with COVID-19 rules (including the shelter employee’s own sister). These sentiments are often hard to navigate when front-line workers feel a power imbalance due to their customer-centric jobs, yet face abuse from a customer who shares a similar cultural identity. Adding to the stress, some also have to deal with coworkers who are skeptical about the need to mask indoors as well as getting vaccinated against COVID-19. The animal shelter employee said that their coworkers often reference former CDC guidance that vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks indoors, which has since changed for areas with high levels of COVID-19 transmission, Florida topping the list. 

Currently there is no legal avenue to inquire about someone’s vaccination status. And with reports emerging about people forging vaccination cards, this resistance to public health rules can make it harder for workers to trust those who claim to be vaccinated.

To prevent losing their workforce to either burn out or COVID-19, some businesses have started requiring patrons to show proof of vaccination, mandating masks and vaccination for employees, and sending strongly worded letters recommending that non-compliant employees should find work elsewhere. Those rules are ostensibly to protect the health of those businesses, as well as their customers. For facilities like the animal shelter, if one department gets sick, it could derail operations entirely. While the shelter employee knows the animals depend on them, they’re really saddened by how visitors seem much more open to following mask rules if they are told how it will protect the animals, rather than the employees. 

“It’s so crazy how people turn after that,” they said. “Because when it’s about other human beings, it’s okay [to not follow mask rules]. But when you say that dogs and cats aren’t going to be taken care of, they’re like, ‘Oh that’s right, for the animals.’ And it’s like, man, no compassion for the human being.”

Unburdening front-line workers

The most effective way to lessen the burden for front-line workers is to vaccinate as much of the public as possible and require employers to provide paid sick leave for workers to get vaccinated, especially in light of the FDA approving the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. President Joe Biden has urged corporations and local governments to increase pressure on the nearly one-third of eligible Americans who still haven’t gotten their shot. According to the CDC, 49.6% of the U.S. population is fully vaccinated, with a mere twenty states having fully vaccinated more than half of their residents. The president has also ordered all civilian federal employees to be vaccinated or submit to regular testing and other restrictions, a move that several other states have since emulated. 

Under the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act (OSHA), employers have a duty to provide a safe workplace for employees—both for health and well-being. However, the Biden administration has made no moves to place similar federal pressure on businesses. Biden called for reinstating the CARES Act mandate on employers to provide paid leave benefits as part of his $1.9 trillion stimulus package. Congress also ended up extending tax credits to reimburse companies that offer paid time off, broadening the program to cover time off for vaccines. But the program is still voluntary, which many experts argue renders it ineffective. 

As the pandemic surges again, front-line employees wish that more customers would realize how hard they work to keep themselves safe while also keeping the peace and doing their jobs. Being subjected to intimidation and threats for maintaining basic safety measures during a pandemic is a burden that frontline workers bear disproportionately, and for BIPOC workers especially, it heightens the already considerable risks to their health and well-being. In a global pandemic, empathy and consideration from everyday customers for those workers is especially vital. 

“I know a lot of people talk about, my this or my that, but if you have a little more empathy and are willing to help other people, that help always comes back around,” Keanu said. “When we care more about other people, we do end up taking care of ourselves.”

Brenton Zola is a first-generation writer, thinker, and polymath who uses the power of words to cultivate humanity. Informed by travel to dozens of nations to illuminate some of the world's greatest challenges,...