Sheffield front line workers speak up on abuse as MP lobbies for a new law

Harry Chapman says that he has been physically threatened by customers where he works.Harry Chapman says that he has been physically threatened by customers where he works.
Harry Chapman says that he has been physically threatened by customers where he works.
Front line workers in Sheffield have been speaking about the abuse they have suffered from members of the public and backed an MP’s proposal to make such attacks a crime.

Harry Chapman, aged 22 from Greystones, has worked at a store in south west Sheffield for almost a year and says that he has encountered regular abuse from members of the public.

He supports Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake’s campaign to make verbal or physical abuse of front line workers a criminal offense.

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Harry said: “I’ve got aggression from customers and some were really rude. Then there’s the criminals, there was a lot of theft. One man came in and I watched him - he got really aggressive with me, making threats to punch me in the face. He was restrained and removed.

Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake. Picture Scott MerryleesSheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake. Picture Scott Merrylees
Sheffield Hallam MP Olivia Blake. Picture Scott Merrylees

"I was really traumatised by that and I started to suspect everyone. I was quite anxious about who was coming in.

“Another man threatened me and my colleagues with a needle - no product on the shelf if worth getting stabbed by a needle or any other weapon. Our policy is to look after yourself first. Police arrested him and put him in the cells for a night and then he was coming back and doing the same thing.”

Harry filled out the form on Olivia Blake’s website, detailing his experiences of abuse as a front line worker.

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He added: “I support her campaign on this, I would absolutely feel safer. If you or I carried a knife we would be in trouble, this is the same thing. People threatening people with weapons should have the book thrown at them. They should be made to pay back what they have taken under the civil recovery scheme.”

Louise Haigh MP for Sheffield Heeley.Louise Haigh MP for Sheffield Heeley.
Louise Haigh MP for Sheffield Heeley.

Harry said that he felt supported by two of his managers but added that he didn’t feel supported by the company he worked for because they did not have proper security such as a guard. He estimates that shoplifting is a daily occurrence at the store and that he feels responsible to confront perpetrators.

Harry said: “I am very confident in telling people to put stuff back. During busy periods of lockdown - Easter and Valentine’s Day, there were queues. Shoplifting actually went down because the shoplifters didn’t want to queue. But then people were getting angry at me for not letting them in. I could let in groups but there was a limit on the number of different households that could be in the store. I was damned either way.”

Dr Caroline Mitchell, a GP at Woodhouse Medical Centre for 31 year, said a message had been circulated in Sheffield of how two receptionists had been left in tears and other patients in disbelief at how they had been spoken to.

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Caroline said: “The scale of verbal abuse directed towards our front line reception is unprecedented and is now happening on a daily basis. I support Olivia Blake’s proposal but we also need to look at why people are being abusive to NHS workers from their own communities.

Dr Caroline Mitchell, a Sheffield GP, has seen receptionists being brought to tears by abuse.Dr Caroline Mitchell, a Sheffield GP, has seen receptionists being brought to tears by abuse.
Dr Caroline Mitchell, a Sheffield GP, has seen receptionists being brought to tears by abuse.

“Some national media campaigns have targeted GPs and their staff and given a green light to a vocal minority who see our exemplary caring reception staff as easy targets rather than the politicians who are responsible for resources for adequate access to care and responsible pandemic public health messaging."

Ms Blake launched a public consultation into abuse faced by front line workers on August 10, following a vicious attack on Asda workers in London.

Many constituents used the opportunity to report their experience of abuse.

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One checkout operator, based in Sheffield, told Ms Blake: “I have been sworn at and also had someone throw their full basket of shopping at me just for asking them to step back and respect the social distancing of others.”

A hotel receptionist said: “[Abuse] happens often. [I] tell them no rooms and get called a b*tch, a liar. I tell guests no more drink, I get sworn at, shouted at, called names. I’ve had things thrown at me, one guy said he was going to cut my head off.”

Ms Blake brought a motion to Parliament on Tuesday, backed by the Institute of Customer Service, the Cooperative Party, and trade unions, to make verbal or physical abuse of all frontline workers a criminal offence.

The motion builds on the 2018 ‘Protect the Protectors’ Act, which made the assault of an emergency worker while they carry out their duties a specific criminal act.

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She said: “I have been horrified by the stories people have shared with me over the past year. I have heard from shop assistants, bus drivers, NHS staff, receptionists and care workers, who have been sworn at, spat at, pushed, had trolleys rammed into them or full baskets of shopping thrown at them - all whilst trying to do their job.

“The Government has been quick to clap these workers for keeping our country going during the pandemic, but nothing has actually been done to support our front-line staff who have had to soldier on, often in Covid-insecure and underpaid work. It is long past time the Government put their money where their mouth is, so we can end the abuse and ensure everyone has the safety and the dignity they’re entitled to at work.”

Sheffield Heeley MP, Louise Haigh, who is supporting the Bill said: “The rising levels of abuse public-facing workers have faced is disgraceful. It’s right that we draw attention to it after they served us so brilliantly during the pandemic. That’s why I’m supporting the motion to make this abuse its own criminal offence.”