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Viral McDonald's fight shows that when customers attack, workers don't have many rights

Dealing with the public every day is not always very sweet. So what's a cashier, salesman or stock boy to do when a customer becomes irate over a straw, wrong price or forgotten item?
Published Jan. 6

It's become the collar-grab seen around the world.

Video taken inside a St. Petersburg McDonald's showed an unruly (and according to police, likely drunk) man grab hold of a cashier, who responded by pummeling the man's face, has been picked up by dozens of news sites and watched by millions.

The altercation, apparently sparked by the city's new no-straw policy, highlights a truth known by every one of Florida's some 2.7 million retail employees: Dealing with the public every day is not always very sweet. So what's a cashier, salesman or stock boy to do when a customer becomes irate over a straw, wrong price or forgotten item? And what rights do they have should that shopper turns violent?

When it comes to the latter question, the answer may be: not many.

Rights you carry as an everyday citizen don't necessarily carry over to the rights you have inside your place of work — especially in the Sunshine State. Florida is a so-called "at-will" employment state in which employees can be fired with little or no cause, even for defending themselves from a customer who is a jerk or worse.

The cashier in the McDonald's altercation, 20-year-old Yasmine James, is on paid leave, according to a McDonald's spokesman. The mega-corporation was under no obligation to make the leave paid, even though law enforcement determined James was acting in self-defense. In the immediate aftermath of the New Years Eve fight, online rumors flew that James was fired.

"McDonald's can fire her for good, bad or indifference reasons," said Tampa employment attorney Luis "Tony" Cabassa. "But she doesn't really have too many rights, with just a few exceptions."

McDonald's spokesman Khim Aday released a statement four days after the altercation saying the corporation shares "the community's concern," is taking "the disturbing incident very seriously," and supports its employees.

One of the main complaints James, who is black, and her attorney Michele Rayner-Goolsby had was the corporation's lag in response to what happened at the restaurant on 34th Street S. Rayner-Goolsby called it an example of how white and male privilege often leave black women to defend themselves alone.

The video shows several seconds pass before another employee comes to James aid. The customer, 40-year-old Daniel Willis Taylor, who is white, was eventually escorted out of the store, kicking another female employee in the stomach during his exit, police said.

"I am committed to using this horrible experience as a means to fight for justice, not only for myself, but for other women experiencing this kind of violence in environments where they should be safe and protected," James said in a statement on Thursday.

Cabassa said this type of altercation is rare. More often he sees employee-on-employee fighting that ends with both fired. He's also had clients who were fired after physically confronting a shoplifter, something most retailers forbid.

Take the case in Tallahassee from July of last year: The manager of Academy Sports + Outdoor Adventures was fired after he tackled a man who was attempting to steal a handgun. Three days, and much outcry later, the company gave him his job back.

It's often the court of public opinion that forces companies to respond.

Too often, according to customer service consultant John DiJulius, a large corporation's lackluster response to a viral ordeal or obvious mistake makes things worse. CEOs need to take responsibility, figure out what went wrong and create a process so it doesn't happen again, he said.

But cashiers and other low-paying positions often are left to fend for themselves on the frontlines.

DiJulius says one of the most frustrating things from an employee's perspective is how customers can react to something that seems so minor to the average worker. It's critical, he says, that employees be trained to understand customers are likely to react emotionally, not rationally, and they can't let it affect them personally.

"The best customer-facing employees are the ones who make it a game," he said. "This person is so mad, but I love this challenge of getting them to be loving me by the end."

James' ordeal at McDonald's is an extreme example. According to her attorney, Taylor responded to having to ask for a straw, which now have to be kept behind the counter, with "vulgar and discriminatory names" and threats of violence toward the cashier.

In more common cases of dissatisfaction — like a customer getting ticked off that an order took an extra 10 minutes — DiJulius recommends the following steps to de-escalate the situation as an employee: Listen by giving the customer complete attention, empathize by but putting yourself in their shoes, assess the level of inconvenience and what can be done, solve the problem the best you can and thank the customer for bringing the issue to your attention.

But there's less of an across-the-board standard when it comes to what to do if a customer gets physical — other than trying to avoid that point by being accommodating and kind to someone, even if they don't deserve it.

"Our highest priority is always the safety and well-being of everyone in the restaurant, and we do not condone violence of any kind, especially against our employees," Aday, the McDonald's spokesman, said in his statement. "We firmly stand with our employees everywhere, including our employees at this restaurant who were involved in this incident."

Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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