In February 2015, a group of 7-Eleven night shift workers in Buffalo, New York, filed a complaint with OSHA. Sick of enduring regular bouts of verbal harassment, racial slurs and even death threats from customers — threats they often experienced while working alone with no security guard — they hoped OSHA could help bring about safer working conditions. Unfortunately, the agency decided not to investigate.
With no help from OSHA, the workers sought out guidance at the Western New York Worker Center, a project of the Western New York Council on Occupational Safety and Health (WNYCOSH). There they learned that OSHA has no specific standard regarding workplace violence, however the agency could still technically act under its general duty clause, which requires employers to ensure the workplace “is free from recognizable hazards that are causing or likely to cause death or serious harm to employees.” With the center’s help, the 7-Eleven workers, who were all employed at the same Elmwood Avenue store, created a Change.org petition calling on management to take two precise steps: hire a security guard for the evening and overnight shifts, and have a minimum of two workers scheduled on all shifts.
Not even a week after the petition went live, at a 7-Eleven store across town, a young woman working the night shift alone was robbed, dragged into a storage room, beaten and raped.
“It set off a firestorm among the other employees,” said Liz Smith-Rossiter, worker center project director at WNYCOSH. “It was the worst-case scenario of what happens when you don’t deal with dangerous conditions.”
Workers organize for ‘Safety Over Slurpees’
Lee Swaydis, 23, had been working at 7-Eleven for more than two years before getting involved in the safety campaign. He worked the overnight shift, from 11 p.m. to 6 a.m., helping customers, working the cash register, and keeping the store stocked and clean. Swaydis told me that rarely would a night go by when he didn’t experience some type of threatening harassment — “it’s extremely scary,” he said, adding that the amount of sexual harassment female employees experience is just “unbelievable.” He’s been at work during two armed robberies.
However, 7-Eleven doesn’t provide security guards during the night shifts, nor does it offer workers any comprehensive training on how to deal with threatening or harassing customers beyond having employees watch a video, Swaydis said.
“You feel helpless,” he told me. “You don’t know what the customer is going to do…it’s a lot of emotional labor.”
One of the last straws was when Swaydis’ co-worker, Misteke Fomby, posted a letter at the store telling management to find a substitute for her upcoming shift. In the letter, she wrote about a particular customer who had been repeatedly threatening her with violence and racial slurs. She had brought it to the attention of local police and store management, but nothing changed. She wrote: “I have had enough! Why is my life not being taken seriously?” Swaydis, Fomby and others working at the Elmwood Avenue 7-Eleven location began talking and decided to take action, which eventually led them to the Western New York Worker Center.
“The workers were telling us that having one person on shift in the middle of the night was creating a sitting-duck atmosphere,” said Smith-Rossiter at the worker center. “They were saying that the conditions in the store were such that someone could get killed and yet, no one was responding.”
The 7-Eleven workers decided to launch the Change.org petition. Shortly after, the 7-Eleven worker across town was beaten and raped. The horrible event prompted the small group of workers to again seek out help from OSHA — “we had to do something now,” Swaydis said. With help from the worker center, the employees again formally complained to OSHA. While the local OSHA office determined that 7-Eleven management was doing all it could to protect the workers, the regional OSHA office disagreed.
In July of this year, OSHA’s Buffalo Area Office sent a Hazard Alert letter to 7-Eleven management, stating it wouldn’t issue a citation, but urging them to take voluntary steps to better protect worker safety, such as developing a written workplace violence prevention program and implementing a variety of security measures. The OSHA letter even included a date by which 7-Eleven was expected to issue a letter on its safety improvements — a move that Smith-Rossiter described as a “somewhat rare.”
In addition to reaching out to OSHA, the worker center led an informal survey of 7-Eleven employees in Buffalo in May and July. Visiting store locations between midnight and 3 a.m., Smith-Rossiter and the organizers asked employees about their experiences on the night shift. All of them said they faced harassment on a regular basis. In one store, the organizers had walked in right after a customer had threatened to “shoot up the place,” Smith Rossiter told me. (According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the majority of workplace homicides related to shootings happen in the retail sector.)
However, a lone worker on the night shift with no security wasn’t always the way in Buffalo, Smith-Rossiter told me. A local company called Wilson Farms, which did provide security guards at its stores, was the original owner of what is now a chain of 7-Eleven locations. When 7-Eleven acquired Wilson Farms, that security disappeared.
“This locally owned company with a fraction of the 7-Eleven budget had guards and this multinational corporation comes in and cuts back on security,” Smith-Rossiter said.
Feeling the pressure, 7-Eleven’s regional manager for Buffalo agreed to meet with the workers in July. The company even flew someone in from the corporate office for the meeting as well. (Note: The 7-Eleven stores in Buffalo aren’t franchised; the corporate office runs them.) The meeting didn’t go well. In fact, both Smith-Rossiter and Swaydis told me that the 7-Eleven representatives barely spoke a word during the meeting — “they kept saying no comment,” Smith-Rossiter said. They made no commitment to improve safety conditions at the Elmwood Avenue store and refused to take a copy of the Change.org petition, which at that point had more than 3,000 signatures.
“After that, we just ramped it up,” said Smith-Rossiter.
In August, the workers and their supporters took the Safety Over Slurpees campaign to the streets. During a community art festival, which had a staging area in the Elmwood Avenue 7-Eleven store parking lot, dozens of workers and their supporters marched through the streets with signs and bullhorns, raising awareness among festival-goers and calling on management to take action. (The campaign’s name goes back to Swaydis, who had been fired after speaking up about the store’s dangerous safety conditions. Management claimed they fired him because he gave away a slurpee for free, even though the employee handbook allows workers to give out free slurpees to dissatisfied customers. Swaydis promptly filed a retaliation complaint over the firing and was reinstated in his job. The unfortunate incident led to the Safety Over Slurpees campaign name.)
After months of organizing, the 7-Eleven workers scored a victory on one of their demands. Management agreed that at the Elmwood Avenue location, two or more staff would be scheduled on every overnight shift. It’s a step in the right direction, Smith-Rossiter said, but it’s still not enough. To keep the movement going, Smith-Rossiter said the worker center is hoping to offer 7-Eleven workers additional training in conflict diffusion and dealing with workplace violence issues as well as provide continuing support in the fight for safer workplace conditions.
Smith-Rossiter told me that this is the worker center’s first partnership with late-night retail workers and its first campaign driven primarily by workplace violence concerns.
“There’s a narrative out there that workplace violence is a police issue, instead of it being the responsibility of an employer to keep people safe,” she said. “But the public is on our side because people fundamentally believe that workers shouldn’t be attacked or assaulted while on the job.”
For Swaydis, he was fired again just the other week. He’s already filed a retaliatory complaint with the National Labor Relations Board and he hopes to stay involved in the safety campaign.
“We’re just trying to survive, we’re trying to pay our rent, we’re trying to help our families and support ourselves,” he said. “Convenience store workers deserve to be safe. We’re every bit as human as you.”
Kim Krisberg is a freelance public health writer living in Austin, Texas, and has been writing about public health for more than a decade.