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‘Be kind: it’s not much to ask’

Wairarapa Hospice Masterton shop. PHOTOS/FILE

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

Hospice Wairarapa’s retail team has a clear and simple message for the community: “we’re people, too”.

Over the past two years, customer service workers have borne the brunt of covid-related frustrations, with the retail sector in particular reporting heightened levels of violence – verbal and physical – towards frontline staff.

Unfortunately, this has extended to the charity and volunteer sector.

Staff and volunteers at Hospice Wairarapa’s Masterton shop have reported increasingly hostile behaviour from some customers in recent months – especially from those entering the store without masks.

Earlier this month, staff posted “a timely reminder about the realities of retail at the moment” on the store’s Facebook page, sharing a poem written by volunteer manager Dionne Johnstone.

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The poem, called “I’m a person, too”, expressed the workers’ hesitancy to approach maskless shoppers for fear of retaliation, and asked the public for kindness and patience at this difficult time.

QR code and face mask poster outside Hospice Wairarapa’s Masterton shop on Queen St.

Sue Cochrane, retail manager for Hospice Wairarapa, said staff who have approached customers to either request they put on a mask, or ask for proof of a mask exemption, have at times been met with “aggression, frustration and pushback”.

Tensions were further exacerbated during the occupation of Parliament by anti-mandate protesters – with workers at the Masterton store subject to “cruel and derogatory comments”.

Cochrane said Hospice Wairarapa’s retail arm is already feeling the strain from the omicron outbreak – as several of its volunteer pool, many of whom are in their sixties or older, are staying home to avoid getting unwell.

Though tensions have eased of late, Cochrane was concerned about the impact of customers’ antagonistic behaviour on workers’ mental health – and that more volunteers would feel unsafe to come to work.

With masks likely to “be around for a while”, she and her team are asking that the community simply “be kind”.

“This level of unreasonable behaviour by [customers] is causing further damage to our staff and volunteers’ health and well-being,” Cochrane said.

“Our workers are here because they want to make a difference to our community. And some people think they can just come in and behave badly – seemingly without it worrying them at all.

“Step into our shoes, be kind to us, and get on with your shopping. It’s not that much to ask.”

Cochrane said Hospice Wairarapa has about 70 volunteers working across its retail spaces – the Masterton and Greytown stores, and the garage sale held at the Te Kowhai premises on Renall Street – who are supported by a small team of paid staff.

As the organisation receives minimal government funding, its shops are “an essential source of income”, funding free palliative care services in the region.

Cochrane said both staff and volunteers had coped well during the pandemic – but, for many, the bullying from customers has taken its toll.

Workers have dealt with everything from “frustrated arguing”, to shoppers producing exemption cards which are clearly inauthentic, to verbal threats and abuse.

At one stage, staff at the Masterton store were forced to call the police.

“Our volunteers were just horrified – all they could do was stand there in silence.

“It just creates a dangerous work environment. Who wants to come to work and deal with that kind of behaviour?”

She said the Greytown store has experienced similar issues.

“It’s not been quite to the same extent – but there have been times where staff haven’t felt comfortable approaching people who come in without masks. So, they’ve just let it go.

“Things have calmed down. But it has left us feeling more vulnerable.”

Cochrane said while the two hospice shops had been fortunate not to have many of its workers become ill with covid or go into isolation, many volunteers have had to scale back their responsibilities in the community during the pandemic.

At the moment, the Masterton shop is unable to open on Saturdays, due to a shortage of workers.

“Without the volunteers, we can’t keep our doors open. And it’s essential that our shops stay open so our organisation can do its work in the community,” Cochrane said.

“But, right now, we don’t have the volunteer resources.”

I’m a person, too
PHOTO/STOCK.ADOBE.COM

I get you feel frustrated, I get you have your views

I’ve opened up the shop today and welcome you on through

It used to be much easier, I didn’t have to ask

I realise eventually you haven’t worn a mask

I know I’ll speak with kindness and respect as well, of course

I don’t know how you’ll speak to me, or how much can I force

I hear when you don’t like it and loudly disagree

I’m grateful when you’re sorry or just as kind to me

I’m here to make a difference, with everything I do

I really wish you’d pause, and see that I’m a person, too

Dionne Johnstone, Hospice Wairarapa volunteer manager

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