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Opinion: Precedented Times

Media coverage of Brianna Kupfer's tragic death ignores the risks retail workers face every day under late-stage capitalism.

the exterior of croft house handmade furniture
(Source: Croft House | Instagram)

The stabbing death of Brianna Kupfer, a 24-year-old UCLA grad student working alone at the Croft House furniture store in Hancock Park on January 13, is a disturbing tragedy. Mainstream coverage of Kupfer’s death has been both predictable and highly politicized, with blame landing on everyone from houseless communities to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascón. 

Local outlets are amplifying popular police narratives around the myth ofsoaring crime rates” and violent “transient” communities. I have seen no coverage that examines why Kupfer was working alone, however, and am concerned that we aren’t asking workers across Los Angeles what might make them feel safer in the workplace.

When I first read the news, as a fellow retail worker, I couldn’t help but put myself in Kupfer’s shoes. I also couldn’t help but find myself irritated and offended by the framing of this violence. No outlets have brought up how unusual it is that anyone would be working alone in a 3,400-square-foot store, or questioning if this is standard practice by Croft House. There hasn’t been outreach to workers’ rights advocates or other organizations to investigate how common this is across industries, or what can be done going forward to ensure no worker is ever alone in store.

Having staff work solo is a business decision, one that has been made by management countless times throughout our city, as a way to cut costs. It puts workers in a vulnerable state to maximize profits.

I work for a small boutique brand and, since the surge in omicron cases here in LA, I have been working alone. Understaffing is a chronic problem in retail that is exacerbated by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Workers have died from COVID while trying to make ends meet; workers have left retail for safer (less virulent!) employment conditions; workers have been reluctant to return to roles they held before the pandemic, knowing they might get sick. The media loves to bang on about the health of the economy, but loathes the people actually making the economy function on a literal level — people like sales associates and cashiers. 

With more than 100,000 retail workers clocking in and out of their jobs daily in LA, so many people are forced to assume the risk of catching COVID: usually on minimum wage, without healthcare, all to keep the businesses profitable. A majority of these workers have no scheduling protections — despite a 2019 motion to draft a “fair work week” ordinance that has a majority of City Council’s support. [Ed. Note: Reyes was a worker leader on the Fair Workweek LA Campaign from 2017-2020].

Without meaningful protections in place, workers are being shuffled around on a weekly (if not daily) basis, all while their co-workers test positive and quarantine. The resulting scenario is that people will likely be working alone, as stores choose to remain open on skeletal staffing. 

The risk retail workers face daily is understood, and we are expected to remain vigilant yet friendly and welcoming. Every store I’ve worked in has a panic button, in case we can’t safely use the phone to call for help. I’ve worked at stores with a handbook on how to engage with an active shooter (try to lock yourself in the bathroom!).

Many workers, like myself, don’t have dedicated parking spots and we have to walk blocks to find a place to park during our shifts, walking to our cars at night, alone. A combination of two-hour parking limits and permit-only parking creates a hostile working environment for retail workers before we even get to our jobs. 

Violence and death is an accepted risk for retail workers, because we are seen as disposable.

a screen shot of a quote from todd kupfer that reads ""We have a lot of politicians that somehow forgot about people and think the key to getting elected is to support the lowest rung of our society and to give them rights and somehow that’s the answer to getting votes," Kupfer said."
A statement from Brianna’s father, Todd Kupfer, on her death. Knock LA reached out to the Kupfer family for this piece but received no response as of publishing time.

If you’ve ever worked in any sector of the wider service industry, you’re well aware of the myriad anxieties that workers face, without fail, every single day. Pre-pandemic, retail workers at malls worried about bomb threats and mass shootings. Pre-pandemic, walking to your car from a small boutique several blocks away could result in sexual harassment or assault. Pre-pandemic, workers were scheduled to close at 10 PM and expected to open the next day, not even 12 hours later. 

I worked at Santa Monica Place in 2019 when a bomb threat was called in targeting Third Street Promenade, the more well-known shopping destination in downtown Santa Monica. My district manager told me to not leave unless we were instructed to; I left along with the rest of my team despite that advice, because selling overpriced jeans is not worth losing my life over. COVID is just another addition to a laundry list of concerns plaguing retail workers. Relief is nowhere in sight. 

Kupfer deserved a safer working environment, not one that made her and her co-workers sitting ducks. Now that a suspect has been arrested, I predict we’ll see coverage on what police and politicians think should be done to stop it from happening again. These will be full of requests from police for more funding to patrol the area. There will likely be calls from local politicians to adopt San Francisco Mayor London Breed’s hyper-surveillance state.

Of course, funding for more police isn’t the answer, as explained in this 2020 article — there is “no correlation nationally between spending and crime rates.” Additional police on the streets will also certainly lead to more deaths by their hands, as seen with the recent devastating shooting in North Hollywood of 14-year-old Valentina Orellana Peralta by LAPD Officer William Jones. These knee jerk reactions will only create more dangerous environments for BIPOC retail workers working in higher-end areas, like the one where Croft House is located.

There are many things retail and service workers will continue to fight for in 2022 — healthcare, full-time hours, a thriving wage, housing — but we must also begin demanding staffing minimums. Retail bosses have had nearly two solid years to prepare and anticipate how to keep their stores staffed properly during a pandemic, yet countless stores throughout LA remain understaffed, vulnerable to both theft and violence against workers. 

Raising wages, offering full-time roles (that come with benefits!), offering professional development, shortening store hours, and adopting COVID-safe business practices are just a few of the common sense solutions retailers could have employed. They could also serve to alleviate some of the violence and precarity retail workers face. And if all of the ideas outlined seem outlandish or impossible, then you are prioritizing the wrong things as a business owner.

We owe it to Kupfer, and other workers killed on the job or on their way to work during the last year, to demand that retailers big and small create safe workplaces for their employees, and that starts with adequately staffing their stores.