New California Bill Would Prohibit Stores From Asking Employees to Stop Shoplifters

New California Bill Would Prohibit Stores From Asking Employees to Stop Shoplifters
The California State Capitol Building in Sacramento, Calif., on April 18, 2022. (John Fredricks/The Epoch Times)
Jill McLaughlin

A California bill to prohibit businesses from asking employees to confront shoplifters or active shooters has passed the state Senate, in spite of opposition from retailers who say it would add to the state’s escalating retail theft problem.

“With growing awareness of workplace violence, California needs smarter guidelines to keep workers safe in the office or on the job site,” the bill’s author, state Sen. Dave Cortese, a Democrat, said in a statement.

Under SB 553, employers would be prohibited from forcing their workers to confront active shoplifters and would set standards for companies of all kinds to address workplace violence prevention.

According to Cortese, the bill is focused on protecting employees and doesn't affect private security guards. In fact, it highlights the need for dedicated safety personnel, according to his office.

The bill doesn't prohibit employees from stopping theft but does prohibit employers from having a policy requiring them to confront shoplifters, he said.

“It does prevent employers from asking non-[private] security personnel to confront a person involved in criminal activity,” Cortese told The Epoch Times in a statement. “We don’t want rank and file employees to be forced to place themselves in harm’s way.”

Supporters of the bill argue that worker safety is an emergency.

Products are displayed in locked security cabinets at a Walgreens store that's set to be closed in the coming weeks in San Francisco on Oct. 13, 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Products are displayed in locked security cabinets at a Walgreens store that's set to be closed in the coming weeks in San Francisco on Oct. 13, 2021. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Assaults at stores have increased in the state faster than the national average, rising by 42 percent from 2018 to 2020, with a 63 percent increase at grocery stores and a 75 percent jump at convenience stores, Cortese said in an analysis of the bill.

More than 50 state and national organizations are against the measure, however, including the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Hispanic Chambers of Commerce, and the California Retailers Association, among others representing a wide range of sectors.

“Unfortunately, we are creating an environment where I actually think this bill will do the opposite, which is to create more workplace violence,” California Retailers Association President Rachel Michelin told The Epoch Times. “I think you’d have more people coming in and brazenly stealing from stores because there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

The bill also eliminates the ability for a store’s loss-prevention employees to approach anyone suspected of shoplifting, according to Michelin.

“A lot of our stores already have hands-off policies,” she said. “A lot of companies will fire employees over that.”

The legislation would have a huge impact on small businesses, according to Michelin.

“[This comes] at a time in California when we’re facing record shoplifting, and organized crime is through the roof,” she said.

Crime Crisis

Retail crime in the Golden State has reached a crisis in many cities, experts say. In California, retailers lose more than $7.8 billion per year to theft, credit giant Capital One reported in April.

In San Francisco this year, several major retailers have closed stores, citing a rise in crime and a changing environment.

Last month, Nordstrom announced the closing of its two remaining stores in the city because of a “deteriorating situation in downtown San Francisco.” Before that, Whole Foods Market, Walgreens, Amazon Go, and Anthropologie also closed outlets in downtown.
Pedestrians walk by a closed Whole Foods store in San Francisco on April 12, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Pedestrians walk by a closed Whole Foods store in San Francisco on April 12, 2023. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Last week, the city’s largest hotel—the 1,921-room San Francisco Hilton—and the 1,024-room Parc 55 stopped making loan payments, electing to walk away, the hotels’ owner, Park Hotels and Resorts, announced on June 5.

“After much thought and consideration, we believe it is in the best interest for Park’s stockholders to materially reduce our current exposure to the San Francisco market,” Thomas Baltimore, Jr., chairman and CEO of Park, said in a statement. “Now more than ever, we believe San Francisco’s path to recovery remains clouded and elongated by major challenges—both old and new: record high office vacancy; concerns over street conditions; lower return to office than peer cities; and a weaker than expected citywide convention calendar through 2027.”

Retailers Campaign for Change

Last year, the California Chamber of Commerce and retailers created Californians Against Retail and Residential Theft (CARRT), a coalition of chambers of commerce, businesses, and business organizations to raise public awareness of the state’s growing theft problem.

The state’s store owners have reported an increase in violence statewide, according to the coalition, and losses have increased by nearly 60 percent over the past five years.

SB 553 doesn’t address the root cause of the problem—retail crime, CARRT spokesman Matt Ross told The Epoch Times.

“I don’t think this bill will do anything to affect the problems with retail crime in any way, shape, or form,” he said. “What we need to do is get more cops dedicated to retail theft and the violence that’s associated with it.”

The bill takes the wrong approach and puts the onus on businesses and not on criminals, according to Ross.

“We need greater enhancements for habitual criminals, and we need to see some revisions to Prop. 47,” he said.

Proposition 47

The coalition is advocating for California’s officials to undo Proposition 47, a law passed by voters in 2014 that reduced many felony offenses to misdemeanors, including drug possession.

It also raised the minimum of felony thefts to $950, which many critics say is the main reason shoplifting and theft have risen across the state.

This session, the Legislature has struck down five bills, authored by Democrats and Republicans alike, that would have addressed retail theft, the coalition reported in May.

“Crime is on the rise, and the Legislature is doing nothing about it,” CARRT said in a statement.

Theft is growing faster than sales, the organization noted.

“Every one of these bills died without a vote on the floor. These are not victimless crimes. Retail theft puts business owners’, customers’, and employees’ personal safety at risk.”

Retail theft has become a problem in California’s bigger cities. Last year, stores in Los Angeles and Orange counties were victims of “smash-and-grab” robberies.

Assemblyman Rudy Salas, a Democrat, attempted to reduce the felony theft threshold back to $400 in 2022, but his legislation failed in the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee after the committee’s chairman said black and brown communities would be impacted.
The committee also voted down another bill by a Republican lawmaker that would have repealed Prop. 47 in 2022.

Support for the Bill

The United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Western States Council applauded the California Senate for passing the legislation on May 31.

“It’s unacceptable that workers in California wake up each morning afraid that they will be assaulted or killed on the job and won’t make it home that night,” Jim Araby, director of strategic campaigns for UFCW Local 5, said in a statement.

Araby recounted how a member of his union was shot and killed during an altercation when an assailant was stealing liquor from the store where he worked.

“Essential grocery workers are trained to sell food to customers, not to stop shoplifting and prevent active shooter situations. We’re glad the Senate stood up for workers and passed SB 553 today,” he said.

The State Assembly is now considering SB 553 but has yet to assign it to a committee.

Correction: A previous version of this article failed to convey certain details of the legislation. The Epoch Times regrets the error.
Jill McLaughlin is an award-winning journalist covering politics, environment, and statewide issues. She has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Oregon, Nevada, and New Mexico. Jill was born in Yosemite National Park and enjoys the majestic outdoors, traveling, golfing, and hiking.