For Jovani Ford of the Arizona Lighting Company, one of the hardest challenges of running a business is retaining workers. The small business only has a handful of employees, so even being one down can have a huge impact on the company.

Retaining workers for the long-term is also a challenge. “Getting a person who wants to stay is the hardest part,” Ford said.

It’s a challenge faced by many employers, particularly those in the retail sector. Now, throw in a pandemic, and the entrance can literally become a revolving door.

To help employers attract and retain workers, the Yuma Chamber of Commerce and Greater Yuma Economic Development held a Lunch and Learn webinar called “Getting Your Workforce Back to Work” on Jan. 26. RetailWorks AZ, an initiative designed to help make it easier and faster for retail workers to move up the career ladder, presented the information, with Holly Kurtz, director of workforce development, and Orlando Casarez, project manager of the retail sector initiative, leading the conversation.

Retail workers are considered frontline workers, and as such, they don’t have the option to work from home. Kurtz noted a shift in the industry that has gone from thinking retail workers are “expendable” to recognizing the important role they play in the economy.

“They are people, we need them, we need to care about them,” Kurtz said, adding that to hold on to workers, employers need to provide a quality work environment.

In Yuma, the retail trade is the third largest sector, with food and recreation the second largest and healthcare at the top. Retail is the fourth largest employment sector in the state, with 47% of the region’s retail workforce under the age of 35. For many people, retail is their first job experience and work.

Kurtz and Casarez highlighted the results of a University of Arizona survey of frontline workers entitled “Frontline Essential Workers at Risk in Arizona: The Safety, Health, and Financial Impacts of COVID-19.”

The research goals were to understand the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the personal experiences of retail workers, their work environments, and individual and family health and well-being. These are the things that are important for them to stay at a job, Kurtz said.

The researchers then provide recommendations for how employers can support employee physical and mental health and wellbeing.

Among the study highlights:

• 62% of frontline essential workers completing the survey agreed, or strongly agreed, that they felt safe at work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• 54% felt that their current employer was doing enough to keep them safe.

• 18% reported being trained on the proper use of any personal protective equipment (PPE) provided by their employer.

• Employees’ perceptions of being safe at work and that their employers are adequately protecting them from COVID-19 exposures are driven by having access to safety trainings and regulating customer behavior.

• Barriers to employee trust include the lack of both effective management of customer behavior and enforcement when customers violate store policy.

• 55% of survey participants expected that they would be verbally threatened by an angry customer in the workplace during the COVID-19 pandemic.

• Survey respondents reported experiencing elevated anxiety, depression and stress even in comparison to other populations during the pandemic. They also reported worse general health than the national pre-pandemic averages.

• Feeling safe in the workplace was the strongest predictor of mental health.

Frontline workers are feeling very stressed, and the more stressed they are, the worse their physical and mental health. To better deal with the circumstances, workers need to feel that employers have their backs.

An example of “having their back,” Kurtz noted that some stores are making it easier for their employees to get the COVID-19 vaccine. The Dollar General and some grocery stores are paying employees for the time off they take to get the vaccine, she pointed out.

John Hessinger, community development director of the Better Business Bureau, commended the focus that some employers are putting on mental health. He noted that Yuma, a military and agricultural community, is “old school” when it comes to a lot of things. Mental health is not necessarily something on the minds of a lot of folks – until workers are yelled at consistently for a long time by disgruntled customers who refuse to wear a mask or follow health guidelines. The stress takes its toll and mental health becomes an issue.

“We as consumers do have a small part in contributing” to a worker’s well-being, “even if you’re not the hostile customer,” Hessinger said.

He suggested that when people go grocery shopping or see frontline workers, they should do their best to greet them and ask how they are doing. “You see 10 pounds of tension released from their necks and their shoulders,” Hessinger said.

The U of A research team came up with recommendations on how employers can have their employees’ “backs” and in turn keep them on for a longer time. Here are some:

TRAINING AND EDUCATION: Provide education and training for supervisors, managers and leadership to understanding and reducing risks of COVID-19 exposure in workplace settings.

• Conduct and participate in trainings and education to build awareness of the stressors facing the workforce due to the long-lasting impacts of the pandemic.

• Provide education and training for employees to build confidence in workplace protections and public health measures.

• Link employees to healthcare and mental health resources and other community- based assistance programs

COMMUNICATION, COMPLIANCE AND BUILDING TRUST: Reinforce the importance of safety measures throughout the workplace and among both employees and customers.

• Identify strategies to encourage public or customer compliance with safety policies.

• Review existing safety compliance policies for customers.

• Identify alternative options to address employee concerns, including reassigning employees that do not feel safe.

• Create discussions and engage with employees and local health departments to identify innovative approaches to incentivize compliance.

• Develop recognition programs that applaud and reward stores for complying with public health guidelines.

• Adopt a short and efficient survey tool to gauge employee morale and wellness.

PARTNERSHIPS: Collaborate with health departments and local business organizations to identify resources to enhance employee health and wellbeing.

• Partner with local health officials and COVID-19 testing locations to support employees to get tested. (The same should be considered for COVID-19 vaccination when it becomes available.)

• Partner with health departments to link employees to healthcare and wellbeing resources.

MITIGATE RISK: Increase customer access to online/curbside delivery which helps keep customers out of stores.

• Develop customer and employee rewards programs (e.g., track compliance rate) to incentivize use of face coverings and other safety policies such as social distancing.

• Provide regular trainings around safety policies involving management and workers.

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