It’s a ConEd mechanic.
A ConEd mechanic who is increasingly wary of the general public.
Serafino Lopez spends a lot of time out in the field, and he is not joking about the unsettling changes he has seen with the general public in recent times. He is the man Brooklyn residents see on their doorstep after the power goes out.
The Con Edison lead mechanic in subsurface construction has to employ his technical skills to detect electrical problems, and get the lights back on.
Ever since the pandemic, Lopez increasingly needs to resort to his other tool box. That’s defusing customer anxiety and aggression — especially if he’s following up after another crew team couldn’t fix the problem, or if he needs to tow a car down the block to access a manhole.
“I’ve seen a shift in people’s thoughts, people’s actions,” said Lopez. “You could see people are more high strung, a little bit more angry and frustrated, a little bit more nervous. I try to be as understanding as possible and just kind of relate to their problem. I try to ensure them the issues are going to be resolved because I’m here.”
Still, Lopez and his crew get harangued by passersby about the cost of utility bills and interrogated about disconnects. More people disregard traffic cones and drive through his worksites. Around a year ago, some guys threatened him with razor blades, Lopez said.
“I haven’t seen it wild like this for a long time,” said the 38-year-old, who was born and raised in Brooklyn.
Face-to-face customer interactions have gotten tougher. Just ask flight attendants. COVID-19 heightened these confrontations, with worker-customer altercations over masks or people checking vaccine cards at the front door. But while the pandemic fades, the greater chance for customer rudeness — or worse — remains, say frontline workers and experts.
Lopez is far from the only public-facing worker who walks the streets to notice a change in how strangers treat him on the job. Last week, the Internal Revenue Service said its revenue officers would stop making most surprise visits to taxpayers’ homes to ask questions about unpaid taxes or unfiled tax returns.
The decades-long tax collection tactic was curbed in part to undercut scammers who pose as the taxman, IRS Commissioner Danny Werfel said. But it was also a precaution for IRS staffers who had become more apprehensive about the trips, he added.
“‘Knocking on someone’s door today is a different scenario than it was 10 or 15 years ago.’”
“I don’t know that that’s unique or specific to the IRS, but knocking on someone’s door today is a different scenario than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Werfel told reporters. “There have been significant reports from IRS employees of home visits where they have felt unsafe.”
Doreen Greenwald occasionally experienced some uneasy moments during the nearly two decades she worked as an IRS revenue officer, sometimes visiting homes and businesses.
Conversations on a porch or an invitation inside were common, said Greenwald, who worked at the IRS for 35 years total and is now national executive vice president of the National Treasury Employees Union.
“Over the years though, there was more and more scrutiny, where people would say ‘I don’t know why you would be here,’ ‘I don’t believe you are who you say you are.’”
She’s heard stories of IRS colleagues being chased off properties with dogs on the loose, guns that were brandished or shot in the air “and things of that nature to let you know that your presence is not welcome.” There were times when Greenwald was threatened on the phone and to her face, she said.
While IRS workers are largely ending their unannounced trips, the livelihoods of people like Jillina Kwiatkowski, a process server, depend on surprise in-person visits — and they’re becoming more fraught.
Her job requires her to formally deliver freshly-filed lawsuits for outstanding credit-card debts, foreclosures, landlord-tenant disputes, personal injuries, divorces, child custody and more.
“After 23 years, it still can be a little bit nerve-racking. You don’t know what you are going to find on the other side of the door that you are knocking on. You always have to keep your guard up,” said Kwiatkowski, owner of Smart Serve Process Serving in the suburbs of Buffalo, N.Y. and first vice president of the National Association of Professional Process Servers.
Kwiatkowski has honed her approach. She stays calm and her demeanor is “very apologetic.” Kwiatkowski always backs into dead-end driveways if she needs to exit quickly and she never fills out paperwork in her car after service, in case the recipient decides to vent.
There’s never a great time for people to learn they’re getting sued, Kwiatkowski said. But background stressors make it more difficult to be the bearer of bad news. Doing her job after 9/11 was tough. Certainly during COVID-19 and with inflation, “definitely tempers rise.”
“It probably has gotten worse. As the economy has changed over the years, people’s attitudes have changed over the years,” Kwiatkowski said. “I’ve never had a huge amount of problems. Have I heard of any uptick in problems with process servers? Yes.”
Still, Kwiatkowski has been pushed from porches, brought to tears by an off-duty police officer and once pecked by a turkey. “The thing chased me, and they run fast. And they hurt.”
Help wanted, conflict-resolution skills needed
“Incivility has risen dramatically over the last couple decades. But really over the last few years, it’s skyrocketed,” said Christine Porath, a UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School professor who studies the toll of incivility on companies and their employees, and works with companies that are dealing with it in their ranks and among customers.
When Porath polled workers across the world in 25 industries last year, 78% said they experienced incivility at work at least once a month. Also, 78% believed bad customer behavior directed at workers was less common five years ago.
She mainly links people lashing out to increased stress, negativity and uncertainty in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The prospect intensifies with home visits where people have a stranger on their turf, and are on guard for fraudsters. Fraying community connections and fading confidence in institutions like government, courts and big business also reduce trust, she said.
Nastiness is always a problem because it can be “contagious,” Porath said. But its continuing rise is especially worrying when so much of the economy revolves around service for customers, clients, patients and the public, she noted.
During the so-called great resignation — the dash for better employment while the economy bounced back from COVID-19 — Porath said she “heard a lot of people transitioning from frontline job to back-office work” in order to spare themselves the customer-facing agitation.
As technology and automation keep changing the nature of work, people who know how to deal with tense customers and heated emotions will have one very appealing skill set for the future, Porath said.
When she exited a Costco
the other day, a worker’s warm “thank you” stuck with her.
“If organizations knew that matters to people, the human touch, the human element, I think that we would see that valued. …If you can provide the situations where people feel that more deeply, I think that’s fantastic. You’re going to increase the chance of customer loyalty dramatically.”
‘It gets tough at times’
A store greeting is different from a door knock to access a home’s basement or to serve a lawsuit.
Lopez loves his job. “I provide a service to the public and I have a team of brothers that are behind me.”
Lopez, a shop steward and member of the Utility Workers Union of America, AFL-CIO, credits ConEd for offering the needed equipment and support. But the chance for difficult interactions is a grind, he said. “It gets tough at times to always deal with this on a daily basis,” Lopez told MarketWatch.
“Unfortunately, we have seen an increase in threats and crimes against our workers in the last several years. Those with thoughts of assaulting a Con Edison worker need to know it is a felony and can result in a prison sentence. Our policy is zero-tolerance of this behavior,” said ConEd spokesman Allan Drury.
It’s also a felony in New York State to assault a process server, Kwiatkowski noted. While president of the state affiliate of the national process-server organization, she lobbied legislators to bump the crime from a misdemeanor to felony in 2016.
Kwiatkowski says process servers offer the constitutionally vital first steps of legal access and due process so people tell their side of the story in a court of law.
“Until they can guarantee that the person you are trying to serve can receive a paper electronically — and there is no way that they can guarantee that right now — we are going to be going knocking on people’s doors,” Kwiatkowski said. “Sometimes it’s a scary job, but we take pride in it.
Lopez also knows his work is vital for the community. “There’s no one on this planet that can work faster in an emergency than us,” he said.