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Merchants, get serious about workplace safety

Published Sep. 28, 2005

Employees have fundamental expectations of their employer.

A reasonable wage, even if it is only the absurd minimum of $5.15 per hour.

To not be treated differently because of the color of your skin, your religious beliefs, your age or your gender.

And, to be able to perform your job in the safest possible environment.

The federal government believes those expectations are so essential that they created laws making it a crime for employers to not honor those basic rights. The feds mandate the minimum wage, they created the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to enforce discrimination laws, and they created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to protect us in our workplace.

Of course, the reason the federal government had to assume that responsibility is because too many employers would not voluntarily comply. Without the threat of fines or prison, we would still be slaving away in dangerous sweatshops, afraid to speak for fear of losing our livelihoods.

Yet, there are those who continually condemn the government's interference in the private sector, predicting that the free enterprise system will crumble at our feet any day if government doesn't do less instead of more. Considering the way government often wastes money and overcharges for the few tangible services it renders, I understand that fear. However, I also understand it is exaggerated because it is motivated by one dominant factor:


Most of the people protesting the loudest about how government interferes with business are the people who step on employees on their way to the bank. Given the opportunity, many business people _ individually and in groups _ put profits above people.

Need an example? I was reminded of one last week as I read the Hernando Times story about the Brooksville Subway sandwich shop being robbed during the early morning hours of Dec. 27. At 1:50 a.m., an unidentified man walked into the store near the busy intersection of U.S. 41 and State Road 50 Bypass, ordered a sandwich and then demanded money. He threatened the clerk by saying he had friends outside and warned him not to talk to the police.

Since there was no gun involved, the robbery doesn't sound too menacing, although I'm sure the frightened clerk could help put that conjecture in perspective. But what is truly scary is that this is the fourth time the Subway shop has been robbed in five years. What is troubling is that even with a history of routine rip-offs, the store was being operated by a lone employee very early in the morning.

It illustrates a statewide problem that, after years of debate, still hasn't been resolved, at least not to the benefit of the people who must work alone at retail establishments late at night.

During the mid- to late-1980s, several cities in Florida passed laws that required convenience stores to have two clerks on duty at night and in the early morning. The move was designed to deter robberies, and it worked beautifully. Convicted criminals admitted it deterred them, and the number of robberies in those cities, including Gainesville and New Port Richey, dropped dramatically. Brooksville was among the first cities in the state to pass the law and it worked here, too; not one convenience store was robbed during the time the ordinance was on the books from 1988 to 1992.

There was a move in 1990 to make the two-clerk rule a state law. After a federal crime report declared that working in a convenience store was the second-most dangerous job in America (less riskier only than driving a taxi) the state Attorney General's office made a push in Tallahassee, with Bob Butterworth issuing a report that said, "Clerks and cashiers, working alone during the late evening and early morning hours, sit as live bait for . . . felons capable not only of robbery, but also assault, abduction, rape and murder."

But the members of the state House and Senate rejected the AG's advice and buckled under to pressure from business industry lobbyists, who complained about how costly it would be to employ extra people. Instead, they talked the legislators into passing a law in 1992 that required them only to take precautions, such as installing video cameras, improving lighting outside the building and improved training for the clerks.

Then, in an unconscionable caveat, the Legislature stipulated that a store did not have to comply with even the minimum security measures unless a clerk already had been robbed or injured since 1989. In effect, our lawmakers gave the convenience store owners one complimentary violent crime before requiring them to take preventive action. What's more, this woefully inadequate state law took precedence over all local ordinances, including the successful one Brooksville had passed.

The aftermath is the politicians proved _ once again _ they care more about the bigwigs who endow their re-election campaigns than they do about the peons who can't afford to make a contribution.

In the meantime, clerks and cashiers working alone late at night continue to be terrorized and killed.

Maybe we should take a hint from the less-government crowd and address the problem it has neglected. Maybe we should not rely on government to create more laws to force businesses to do the right thing. Maybe the answer is for consumers to force businesses to do the right thing by being more selective about where we spend our money. Maybe we should resolve not to patronize any establishments _ convenience stores, sandwich shops, liquor stores, video stores _ that refuse to protect their workers from robbers by always having at least two employees on duty.

Maybe the only way to get the attention of the negligent business owners is to hit them where it hurts _ their bottom lines. Maybe then, like paying a minimum wage and treating people equally under the law, they will accept their responsibility to meet workers' expectations of a safe workplace.