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Workers Say NH Bull Moose Fired Them Over Mask Concerns, Harassment By Customers

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Former workers at multiple Bull Moose locations in New Hampshire say they were frequently threatened and harassed by customers with little or no response from management.

Employees at a Salem, New Hampshire branch of the Bull Moose record store chain say they were fired after raising concerns about the end of the store’s mask mandate and a lax response to customers who harassed workers.

They’re now calling for a boycott of Bull Moose, which is based in Maine and was founded in 1989. It sells music, books, movies, games and art at several locations in Maine and New Hampshire.

Several former workers at the company’s Salem location told NHPR there were things they loved at their jobs: camaraderie with coworkers, working with music and art, and being part of a local indie store they'd shopped at growing up.

But employees also say they frequently experienced upsetting and even unsafe interactions with customers, with little or no response from management.

Workers say female employees were often sexually harassed, physically and verbally, by customers. Some were regulars, who were allowed to keep shopping while targeted workers hid in the back of the store.

Others said non-white workers experienced racial harassment, especially during the pandemic.

Andrew Bove, who worked at Bull Moose in Salem for the past several months, called it a “home away from home” but said he’s now disillusioned by the experience.

"They certainly take on that progressive kind of branding and quickly double back on it when it comes to actually accommodating for vulnerable people or listening to our concerns about the safety of the workplace,” Bove said.

College student Gianna Valenti, 19, said they sought a “dream job” at Bull Moose as soon as they turned 18. But the experience quickly became double-edged.

Valenti recalls having to handle items for consignment that were in foul condition or contaminated with bodily fluids. If they refused, they said, they were often berated by customers.

"Any retail job, any job right now is terrifying. Everything that people are doing is terrifying," they said. "This was something that — it just kept building up and building up."

In the past year, Valenti and others said, masks became an especially huge issue at Bull Moose. The stores didn’t immediately require face coverings when they reopened in spring of 2020, following an initial closure in the early days of the pandemic.

Workers said the company did not enforce New Hampshire’s mandatory statewide mask mandate well into last summer.

“We were getting in near-daily altercations with customers, screaming matches and having to call the police on people, and it was really just a huge mess,” said Mackenzie Keefe, a former manager at the chain's Portsmouth location who quit last fall. “It was like pulling teeth a lot of the time trying to get support from the office...There was always pushback.”

Keefe tried to post a mask requirement at his store before it became company policy, after one of his employees believed they contracted COVID-19 at work. He said managers told him at the time that he couldn’t institute that requirement yet.

“The customers are basically allowed to let loose and do what they want, because the office was too concerned with not alienating them instead of keeping their staff safe,” he said.

College student Kameron Brooksmoore, who worked as a middle manager at the Salem store, said he had a customer pull out a gun one night last fall, after workers asked him to put on a mask under what was then company policy.

“It felt very threatening,” Brooksmoore said. “This guy also was spewing slurs and just general anger about everything.”

He eventually got the customer to go outside. He then locked the doors and called the police, who told the man not to visit the store again but did not file a formal report, Brooksmoore said. He asked his managers if he could post a sign barring loaded weapons from the Salem store to help protect staff.

“They said no. They said that their lawyers couldn’t handle the heat of it,” he said. “I was like, ‘OK – what about us?’”

Staff had begun to quit as tensions like these rose between employees and managers. Then, last week, the company moved to lift its mask requirement for customers. Workers say they were also told they couldn’t ask about patrons’ vaccination status.

Former workers say their managers came to the Salem location last Thursday to talk with staff about this and other ongoing issues. Many were concerned: some weren’t fully vaccinated, couldn’t wear masks themselves or had immuno-compromised family at home.

Managers listened to workers’ concerns about masks and their requests for a response to ongoing harassment issues. Then they told everyone to close the store early and go home.

“We told them what we thought and it didn’t mean anything,” said Gianna Valenti. “That was scary.”

Workers were told not to come in the next day, last Friday, and a sign was posted outside the store that said it was closed indefinitely. Soon after, all the Salem workers received an email, which Brooksmoore provided to NHPR, saying they were fired effective immediately.

Bull Moose did not respond to a request for comment for this story, but posted a statement on social media saying the company hoped to reopen the store as soon as it could and that its closure “had absolutely nothing to do with masks.”

“We are not able to share the reasons behind our decisions regarding the Salem store as it is important to us to protect the confidentiality of our former employees. We can, however, say we are confident this decision was in the best interest of our customers, employees and business,” the statement says. “The decision in itself is heartbreaking, but we stand by it as the correct course of action to move the business forward.”

Heidi Krantz, a former Salem employee who lives in Derry, said workers had been starting to plan a walkout before they were fired. Others said there had been some preliminary discussions of unionizing in past months, but nothing was concrete.

Workers declined to elaborate on next steps, beyond calls for a boycott and requests for an explanation from Bull Moose. Many said they still had personal belongings stuck at the Salem store, with no word from the company on how to retrieve them.

Krantz and others said they’d consider taking their jobs back if the company agreed to increase pay, institute better safety protocols and give each store’s staff the final say on masks.

“I still don’t believe our demands are too big,” said Krantz. “I think we’re asking for very basic human rights…I just want us to all be treated equally, I want us to be able to function as a record store and have fun working at a record store instead of having to go in and be like, well, I hope I don’t have a gun pulled on me for asking someone to pull their mask up today.”

Valenti, the 19-year-old former Salem employee, said they'd been looking forward to working full-time this summer in order to pay for college. They said they hope Bull Moose will sit down with all their employees and listen to their concerns for the future.

They'd consider working at Bull Moose again if managers could make it "a safer place to be," Valenti said. "The fact that people were in danger for their lives in going to work at a retail chain - that's not OK. That's never OK."

Keefe, the former manager in Portsmouth, is among many in the Bull Moose network who’ve joined the Salem staff’s calls for a boycott on social media in the past few days. He said he hopes it serves as a wakeup call for his former employer and industry.

"People aren’t going to work for minimum wage and a good employee discount and a lenient dress code," he said. “They need a livable wage, they need to feel protected."

"I think a lot of companies that have really relied on bleeding their employees dry by just trying to present as a very cool company are in for a very rude awakening," Keefe said.

As vaccinations continue, businesses reopen, and many other workers experience similar conflicts, Keefe said he believes Bull Moose won’t take action until it affects their profits.

Editor’s note: Bull Moose is a financial supporter of NHPR.

This article was originally published on NHPR.org.

Copyright 2021 NHPR. To see more, visit NHPR.