As State Rep. Torrey Harris left a meeting Thursday afternoon, his phone buzzed with text messages about another American mass shooting – this one close to home, at a Kroger grocery store in Collierville. Immediately, memories of the shooting he experienced in 2013 as a retail worker came flooding back to him.
“I’m kind of reliving all of this again,” he said Friday.
Around 1:30 p.m. Thursday, Collierville police received a report of a shooting at the suburban store on New Byhalia Road. Witnesses said that at the sound of gunfire, customers and employees scattered, taking cover in back rooms and offices. Fifteen people were shot and one, shopper Olivia King, was killed. The suspected gunman, who worked for a contractor at Kroger, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said.
At least eight of the injured were store employees, according to union officials. And in the days, weeks and months to come, these Kroger workers may go through what Harris continues to deal with years later. And experts say the employees may need extensive mental health services and other support to help them heal.
Thursday’s violence follows a particularly stressful period for grocery store workers, who were deemed essential, yet not among the first occupations eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine in Tennessee. The past two years have dealt trauma upon trauma, and now, a mass shooting.
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Thursday’s shooting wasn’t the first instance of violence at an area grocery store. In 2006 at the Schnucks in Lakeland, a college student attacked co-workers with knives. He was charged with nine counts of attempted murder, but was found not guilty by reason of insanity. That store later became a Kroger and is now a Sprouts Farmers Market.
Workplace mass shootings, while ticking up in the last year, are still rare. Between 2006 and February 2020, there had been 13 mass workplace shootings carried out by a current or former employee, according to a database compiled by The Associated Press, USA Today and Northeastern University.
Still, with tragedies like the 2018 gunfight with police that ended with a hostage standoff and the death of a Trader Joe’s assistant store manager, the 2019 shootings by a Walmart employee in Southaven, Miss., that killed two co-workers and wounded a police officer, and the killing of 10 people at a King Soopers grocery store in March, grocery workers may be feeling less safe at a place so central to daily living.
Harris was one of the only managers at his Bartlett Walmart store the day a man who had tried to shoplift was shot by a police officer. He remembers hearing screaming in his earpiece, and he ran to the front of the store, at which point he heard gunfire.
Later, he learned the man fled the store with stolen goods, drove a car into an officer and was shot after he fled the vehicle. Witnesses at the time said a man ran into the Walmart saying he was shot. The man survived, pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and was sentenced to 10 years; the police officer also survived.
Harris remembers only chaos as he tried to shepherd customers to safety.
Six years later, one of the men Harris trained with at Walmart was killed in a shooting perpetrated by a suspended employee at a different Walmart in Southaven.
Some of Harris’ coworkers quit in the aftermath of the shooting; Harris, who was 22 at the time, took a 90-day leave of absence and ultimately left Walmart.
“When I had to go through this, it took a huge mental toll. And I know it’s going to be the same for those employees” in Collierville, said Harris.
Workplace shootings are traumatic in part because they’re so unexpected, said licensed psychologist Archandria Owens. Neither customers nor workers expect a grocery store – or a Walmart – to be the scene of violence.
“It’s generally something that overwhelms our senses, overwhelms our sense of safety, our sense of stability, consistency,” Owens said. As people come to terms with an overturned sense of safety, they can become more anxious and fearful and less emotionally stable.
For retail employees who have had to enforce mask mandates on customers and watch as their health has been deprioritized, comprehensive mental treatment will be key, Owens said.
The country and much of the world have experienced collective trauma from the ongoing pandemic, Owens said, already putting people in a shaky mental state. And retail workers have had a particularly tough year, creating “a compounding effect of trauma,” Owens said.
“We experience a lot of impact from one event and that can be deeply impactful for a lifetime. But when we also start to experience multiple traumas, they have a cumulative effect and can impact our bodies and our minds and our spirits very differently because of the compromising effect that trauma has,” Owens said.
All those factors mean that recovery and healing from the trauma of the shooting could be more complicated.
“We’re not just dealing potentially with a gunman in Kroger in Collierville, but we’re also dealing with a gunman in Kroger in Collierville in the middle of a pandemic that now has sprouted variants and we don’t know when this is going to end,” Owens said.
According to the company, eight Kroger employees were injured, said Lonnie Sheppard, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, Local #1529. Seven are hourly workers, one is a manager and none appeared to be in serious condition, Sheppard said. Previously, police said 10 employees were injured; it’s unclear why there’s a discrepancy.
Sheppard’s been speaking with local union presidents, including those in Denver and Seattle, whose members have experienced similar shootings, he said. They’ve offered advice on ways to support workers, such as setting up funds for victims.
He’s also sending Kroger a three-page document of policy recommendations the union would like to see the company implement, including adding panic buttons and increasing training for what to do during or after an active shooter situation. It’s the same document he sent over three months ago, but which elicited no response from Kroger, he said. A spokesperson from Kroger did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
His union members have been calling him since the shooting, he said. They want to be safe at work, whether from the coronavirus or shootings.
“They’ve been there since day one, over a year and a half, fighting this dangerous atmosphere, and come to find out yesterday, there’s more than just a disease that’s dangerous out there,” he said.
“But they’ve been there providing for the communities. It’s just very upsetting.”
Kroger will offer counseling services to workers at the Collierville store, as well as to any other Kroger employee, said spokeswoman Teresa Dickerson. Following the March shooting in Boulder at King Soopers, which is owned by Kroger, the company offered access to mental health services, emergency paid leave, and set up an associate hotline to answer questions or offer assistance with ongoing concerns. King Soopers also donated $1 million to an organization that assists victims of mass violence.
Mental health services are a good start, Owens said, but beyond that, employers should make sure their workers feel safe, such as by hiring additional security.
For some people, feeling safe might mean not immediately returning to work. Employees who need time to recover shouldn’t worry about missing a paycheck, Owens said, suggesting that Kroger offer paid time off, something Sheppard also said they’d ask for. It’s unclear whether Kroger will offer paid leave to employees; a spokesperson did not mention it at a press conference Thursday and has not responded to a request for more information.
The best way to offer help to employees is to ask them what they need, Harris said. He also thinks more substantive mental health services should be offered year round, not just after trauma.
Healing will take time, and should be on an individual, family and communal level, Owens said, adding that “reestablishing hope” is essential.
“Our society wants people to move through things that we were never meant to move through so quickly,” she said. “I just hope that there will be plenty of space for people to heal, whatever that looks like for them.”
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