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When The Pandemic Causes Pandemonium With Staff And Clients, How Should This Store Owner React?

Safety protocols and differences in the amount of work done by staff are the culprits.

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WHEN HER DAD passed away back in 1997, Maria Panetti and her family moved back to her hometown, where she and her husband, Joe, bought a small downtown building and she launched Abramo’s Fine Jewelry — named after her dad, whose support over the years had helped make her dream a reality. Maria’s skill with custom design and her strong relationships with suppliers and the community helped Abramo’s grow quickly and steadily over the years. At the end of 2019 — the best, most profitable year in the store’s history — Abramo’s employed a six-member sales team, an office manager and three highly skilled goldsmiths.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

Now, in May 2020, Maria sat at her desk in her very quiet store. For the past seven weeks, the coronavirus pandemic had kept the Abramo’s physical location closed to the public. Fortunately, a significant investment over the previous five years to build out the company’s e-commerce platform meant that while the store was closed to in-person shoppers, Maria, Joe and two employees were able to keep the business alive by maintaining phone and email contact with clients, redirecting outreach efforts to digital media, and selling via their website with shipping and contact-free home delivery options.

Despite the immediate 60 percent drop-off in sales, the significant gains over the previous two years had left the company in a strong enough financial position to continue paying their staff at their full wage level for the first three weeks of the shutdown. Past that, Abramo’s strong history and Maria and Joe’s great relationship with a local bank led to quick funding under the Paycheck Protection Plan, so everyone continued to get paid for the duration. Maria held video-conference meetings with her team every other day and made sure each person had a detailed list of work-at-home responsibilities. It was disheartening at times to see the low engagement levels of some of her employees, but with all the stress and craziness, she decided to encourage rather than demand. She and Joe worked on finding solutions that would help Abramo’s adapt to doing business in the “new normal” while keeping staff and customers safe. After a great deal of research and thought, Maria made the decision that masks would be required for all employees and all customers. A sign on the locked front door would clearly explain the policy, and disposable masks would be provided for any client.

Finally, on May 1, state and local officials gave the go-ahead to re-open the store, with limits on occupancy and an expectation to adhere to state mandates and CDC recommendations for safety precautions. Maria put together a schedule that would have the sales and the shop teams rotating days and got her team together on a video conference to announce that everyone would be back to work starting the following Monday or Tuesday. She asked them to review the store’s new policies and protocols. While most were excited and ready, Maria noticed that several of her associates were unusually quiet.

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Shortly after the meeting, Maria got a call from one of her top salespeople who wanted her to know that she was not ready to come back. She felt it was too soon to reopen — especially since she was certain that one of the store’s younger employees continued to ignore social distancing and other precautions, a fact that a quick look at his social media feeds confirmed. Maria agreed to give the associate another week to work from home while she reviewed the situation.

She had barely hung up when she saw an email from the younger employee in question — a talented goldsmith. He let her know that he was ready to come back, but that he refused to wear a mask. He said that he did not believe in their effectiveness and that he would not let his right to decide for himself be taken away.

As she looked up from her computer, Maria saw the two employees who had been working in the store for several hours each day standing at her door. They had learned that everyone had been paid for the past seven weeks, even though they were the only ones who had actually worked. Their resentment was palpable as they asked Maria how she planned to compensate them to reflect that difference. She promised to look into solutions and get back to them.

Despite her best efforts to keep everyone on the rails throughout the shutdown, Maria’s staff was in total disarray. Nonetheless, she and Joe and her two associates came into the store the next day, intending to “soft open,” taking care of anyone who might come in. Of course, the first customer of the day came to the door demanding to be let in but refusing to wear a mask, insisting that the requirement was a violation of her civil rights. Maria explained that for the safety of her employees, she could not let her in under those circumstances, but that she would be happy to step outside to help with the repair the woman had come to pick up. The woman walked off with an angry tirade, and that afternoon, left one-star reviews on a variety of sites complaining about Maria’s disregard for her rights and those of other people who refuse to subscribe to fabricated fear.

The Big Questions

  • Is Maria obligated to provide additional compensation for the employees who worked in the store throughout the shutdown?
  • How should she handle the few who did little over the seven weeks despite being given specific assignments and a full paycheck?
  • Is Abramo’s mask policy for employees and customers sensible? What should she do about the employee who refuses to cooperate? Is there an effective way to deal with customers who object to the policy?
Rocki G.
Santa Fe, NM

My heart bleeds for her. All of this insanity is unfair and unjust. I applaud her paying employees, as I could only pay for the first two weeks. My family business turned 60 years old in June, and I am scared. Our state has instituted ALL people wear the masks, employees and visitors alike. Already, there has been “mask bashing” in my community. Stores denying customers their right to shop. There is no solution but to move forward. She can’t go back and fix the employee situation, but she can compensate with a fabulous bonus to the ones that felt slighted when business comes back. That is what I intend to do.

Richard G.
Birmingham, MI

Sadly, there is now divisiveness rather than cooperation. The goldsmith needs to know the mask is not for his well-being, but for fellow workers and employers. This is simply a safety rule. It’s perfectly fine to require employees to follow rules they dislike. Employers can, and should, require their employees to follow safety rules; not making them follow the rules, they are open to lawsuits if something bad happens. The customer situation could be avoided by being proactive. Call all of your customers in advance of opening. In a kind, non-confrontational way, let them know the store policy. That requires diplomacy, which is easier before a confrontation begins. If the employer has been following a policy of granting sick days for hours worked, it is quite possible that those employees who were working are still entitled to those sick days, while the others have used them up. Try to make everyone feel well treated. And the employees who were MIA while working from home should probably be let go.

Sterling S.
Helena, MT

Speaking as an employee:
1. Maria isn’t obligated to adjust pay after the fact. It would have been nice to pay the actual onsite employees more; however, I don’t see where she should feel compelled to make an after-the-fact adjustment. Those onsite employees could, however, be mollified with adjustments to bonuses or other perks if she feels it necessary.
2. The slackers. Perhaps it is time to clean house … Those employees who took a paid vacation instead of continuing to work from home need to be evaluated as to their worth to the team.
3. The Goldsmith and the Mask. Easy compromise. No mask, stay in back. No customer contact, period. As a goldsmith, I can think of about 100 reasons offhand for not wearing one, starting with setting it on fire while welding.
3. Crazy customers … There is always a way, but some customers refuse to see the path, be it over masks, money, or unicorn designs.

Marcus M.
Midland, TX

Why are people so damn difficult?!?! The two that stayed on to help in the store should be grateful they had a job to keep going to and didn’t have to sit at home. Maria should probably give them a cash bonus of some kind to show her appreciation, but she certainly isn’t obligated. And then she should have a meeting with those who slacked off and make sure they know she’s a little disappointed with their efforts. Her mask policy doesn’t seem unreasonable if it makes her and the staff feel more comfortable, and it’s garbage that the customer went out of her way to give her those terrible reviews in the middle of a pandemic. As for the employee that refuses to wear a mask … I don’t know what to tell you with that. It seems like a meeting with the whole team is in order, and I would remind everyone that there are a lot of people out there looking for jobs, so everyone better shape up and get on the same page ASAP.

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Steve J.
Carefree, AZ

While Maria isn’t obligated to give additional compensation, it is the right thing to do. Additionally, she should retain those employees and lay off the slackers. “Sensible” has much too political overtones, as have other articles printed in INSTORE lately. It is Maria’s right to make and enforce whatever workplace policy, mask or otherwise, that she chooses. Those policies can help or harm business revenue, encourage or displace employees, or cause other circumstances. Those consequences are Maria’s to handle.
Maria’s decision to enforce masks is hers, but it cannot be selectively or haphazardly enforced. Masks around the neck or below the nose are just the same as no mask.
If the jeweler in question is paramount to the continued success of the business, maybe they can be accommodated offsite at shared expense, since it is the employee’s refusal to follow in-store policy.

Jim D.
Kingston, NH

Poor Maria bought into the PPP plan and didn’t apply it uniformly with all her employees; big mistake. Now she needs to come up with some way to recompense those who actually worked, maybe two weeks of paid vacation or nice raises. No matter what, it is going to be painful. It makes me glad I don’t have employees.
As for the goldsmith refusing to wear a mask or social distance … he would be gone. Let’s see him find a new position with his attitude. I can picture him showing up for a job interview without a mask and finding doors literally locked against him. Bet he comes back with a mask. The same can be said about customers who feel their rights outweigh the rights of others. With employees you can give directives, with customers all you can do is say “sorry” and know they will have a difficult time finding someone who will let them into their shops. No one has the right to endanger another’s life or that of your loved ones.

Ira K.
Tallahassee, FL

Five questions, five answers. Those who worked extra should get an extra $200 a week in cash. Employees who stayed at home were told they would be paid, and they were. Good; but remember their lack of production when they do return. Everyone should wear a mask; it’s for everybody’s protection. Too bad about the jeweler. He needs to wear a mask, too. If he says he’ll leave, say goodbye. Most important, no mask means no entry. Get in touch with the SBA for a grant.

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Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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