COVER STORY : With Violent Crime Striking Even on the Job, Workers Are Seeking. . . : A Margin of Safety

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A liquor store clerk in Long Beach is killed for $68 in his cash register. A restaurant manager in Downey is stabbed to death for the day's receipts. A cabby in Montebello is pummeled by two passengers demanding $25. And a mail carrier in Compton is robbed at gunpoint by robbers seeking welfare checks.

Workers in Southeast Los Angeles County are increasingly the victims of assaults and homicides, authorities say, and the growing peril of on-the-job violence mirrors a statewide trend. Violent acts have become the leading cause of death in the workplace, surpassing transportation accidents, according to state statistics.

State public health experts say most of the violent workplace crime occurs during robberies at convenience stores, gasoline stations, fast-food outlets and other businesses in which employees handle cash and work alone or late at night. Delivery workers whose jobs take them into crime-ridden neighborhoods face similar dangers.

Employers are scrambling to make these jobs safer. Some now close at night or prohibit employees from working alone after dark. Others have equipped clerks with flak jackets or panic buttons that ring company headquarters. In Compton, police now stake out mail routes at the beginning of each month when carriers are delivering government checks.

But authorities and workers alike agree that there is no foolproof way to guard against crimes that occur randomly and without warning. As a result, workers are often left to protect themselves as best they can.

Most rely on a combination of weapons and instincts.

* A motel manager in North Long Beach who lives on site locks herself inside her quarters after 10 at night to avoid being robbed or shot by drug users hanging out in the dark parking lot outside her office.

* A mail carrier in Compton varies her mail route when she senses trouble--changing the order of the streets she walks--to avoid being an easy target for would-be robbers.

* Gary Thornton, a former clerk at P & B Liquor Jr. Market, kept a police scanner behind the counter to monitor activity in the surrounding Bixby Park neighborhood, an area known for prostitution and drug dealing. The crackle of police chatter, Thornton says, scared off would-be robbers--until the scanner itself was stolen in January.

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Thornton also kept a loaded gun and a baseball bat on hand. Still, Thornton, a formidable presence at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, says he was robbed and struck in the face with a beer bottle in separate incidents during his 18 months at the store.

His former co-worker, Nasser Akbar, 51, was slain last August during a nighttime robbery at the store. "They put five holes in him for 68 bucks," Thornton said.

A week before that fatal shooting, the owner of a meat market about a mile away was shot to death during a robbery.

Thornton left his job this month to search for a safer job, possibly as a truck driver or a cashier at a department store. "People thought I was nuts to work there (the liquor store)," he said.

Some workers say that fear is part of the job. To deal with that, they may seek counseling or request transfers to safer locations. Those who remain learn to live with frayed nerves.

"I'm out there and I'm shaking, delivering the mail fast," said Compton mail carrier Jose Martinez. Last September, robbers stomped and choked Martinez and took his mailbag, which contained about 150 government checks. "I still can't get over it," he said.

Martinez, who suffered cuts and bruises, took a month off after the incident. The day he returned, thieves broke the lock on the back of his truck and stole trays of mail while he was making deliveries.

But Martinez, who has worked his route for the last 18 months, said he intends to stay. "These people really need us out there," he said. "It's like your family."

Compton logged more mail-carrier robberies and mail truck break-ins last year--26 incidents--than any other city in the Southeast area. As a result of the incidents, the city's police department now dispatches 15 plainclothes narcotics and gang investigators to patrol mail routes and accompany carriers when government checks are delivered on the first and third of each month. Police and postal officials also have taped a show for cable television appealing to residents to keep an eye on mail carriers.

"I don't think anyone should have to risk their lives to provide a public service," said Compton Police Chief Hourie Taylor, who appears in the cable TV program. "Hopefully, we can prevent some of this."

Private businesses are taking more precautions. Many now close before dark or lock their doors at night, requiring customers to pay for goods through metal drawers built into front windows. Others have hired security guards or installed surveillance cameras.

San Gabriel Transit Inc., one of the Southeast area's primary taxi companies, is installing computer consoles with panic buttons inside vehicles that alert dispatchers of trouble and immediately pinpoint a cab's location.

P & B Liquor in Long Beach equipped its clerks with flak jackets after Akbar's death.

The owner of a nearby Arco gas station spent $25,000 to install a bulletproof glass cage around the cash register. The station, which doubles as a small convenience store, is located on 7th Street at Obispo Avenue in a neighborhood known for nightly gunfire and drug dealing. The store had been robbed several times and workers had been assaulted before the inch-thick glass went up about 18 months ago.

Since the change, owner Joe W. Meisel says, there have been no robberies. The store, which used to used to close at 10 p.m., now remains open all night. Workers say they feel safe, even when alone late at night.

"I'm very secure," store manager Romeo De Asis said one recent evening as he slid cigarettes, gum and other goods to customers through two small openings just above the counter. "This is a model store. I was thinking every night (before the glass was installed) that somebody might rob me or kill me. This is gonna protect me."

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Some business groups believe that better lighting would make their stores safer. Business owners in downtown Long Beach spent about $1,500 each to install bright lights on fashionable Pine Avenue and surrounding streets, replacing dim yellow low-pressure sodium lights provided by the city. Some business owners are installing the lights in alleys.

"I don't think people commit crimes in brightly lit areas," said John Morris, owner of Mums restaurant on Pine Avenue. "They're looking for shady dark corners."

Long Beach officials are considering plans to replace yellow street lights throughout the city with brighter white lights, a change that business owners and resident groups have been seeking for several years. The city, which had switched to the yellow lights in the 1970s to save energy, is expected to make a decision in the next few months.

Statistics on workplace crime confirm the need for such measures.

The California Department of Industrial Relations, which collects data on the subject, reports that violence became the leading cause of workplace fatalities in 1993, surpassing transportation accidents for the first time.

Homicide was the single biggest killer, accounting for 204 deaths--nearly one-third of the total 650 workplace fatalities in 1993, the latest year for which statistics are available.

Experts say that homicides have been steadily increasing for several years, while other causes of death--including traffic accidents, machinery mishaps and falls--have leveled off or declined.

In Los Angeles County, violence caused nearly half the 209 fatalities at work during a 20-month period encompassing 1992-93, according to a recent study by researchers at UC San Francisco. Most of the killings occurred during robberies.

Researchers say the findings contradict a popular belief that most workplace violence is caused by disgruntled employees who go on shooting rampages. Such incidents--including a shooting last year at an electronics firm in Santa Fe Springs in which a fired employee killed three former co-workers before turning his gun on himself--capture national attention but only account for a small percentage of workplace fatalities, the researchers say.

Experts also say the frequency of violence in the workplace is far greater than any statistics suggest because countless employees are assaulted for every one who is killed.

Robert Harrison, acting chief of the state Department of Health Services' occupational health branch, estimates that 10,000 workers or more are assaulted on the job statewide each year. But even Harrison, who is conducting a statewide study of the subject, acknowledges that no comprehensive method exists to keep track of nonfatal incidents.

"There are countless numbers that are unreported," he said.

Public health experts such as Harrison say the rise in deadly workplace incidents reflects an epidemic of violence in general.

"As our society becomes more violent, it is spilling over into the workplace," Harrison said. "I think we are seeing a permanent phenomenon."

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Economists say high unemployment contributes to crime. The state has lost tens of thousands of jobs in recent years to defense and aerospace cutbacks. Southeast Los Angeles County has been hit particularly hard as thousands of workers have lost their jobs.

"When unemployment is high and wages are low, there is going to be more violence in general," said Paul Leigh, an economics professor at San Jose State University who has written extensively about occupational hazards. "People want income and this is one horrible way to get it."

Some law enforcement authorities said they are concerned that California's new three-strikes law--which requires sentences of 25 years to life after a third serious felony--may increase workplace deaths during robberies because criminals won't want to leave witnesses.

Meanwhile, the violence has prompted officials at Cal/OSHA, the state's watchdog agency for worker safety, to issue voluntary guidelines for businesses to follow to increase security. Among the suggestions: keep limited cash on hand and install mirrors or surveillance cameras.

"Security is a legitimate health and safety issue," said Cal/OSHA chief John Howard. "California workplaces have changed. They no longer contain the traditional causes of (danger)--machinery accidents, falls and chemical exposure. Employers may have to train their employees how to diffuse a hostile situation."

Even companies that take elaborate precautions are not immune.

El Pollo Loco has issued each of its 124 restaurants in Southern California a thick binder filled with security policies. Among other things, the company prohibits employees from taking out trash after dark and requires that doors be locked after 9 p.m.

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But Mayra Saldana, an assistant manager at the company's restaurant on Firestone Boulevard in Downey, was killed last August during a late-night robbery. Police say two assailants approached her about 1 a.m. as she was leaving the restaurant, pushed her back inside, forced her to open the safe, stabbed her to death and made off with more than $3,000.

Police believe the incident was masterminded by a third suspect, a former manager at an El Pollo Loco in Long Beach, who they say is suspected of being involved in robberies at another El Pollo Loco in Carson and a Sizzler Restaurant in Gardena. Police said the man, whose name they would not release, has fled to another state. The other two suspects also have not been caught.

Over the last year, the company has reviewed security at its outlets, adding extra lighting to stores and parking lots, cutting away bushes from windows and repainting interiors with lighter colors. The changes had not been started at the Downey location when the robbery occurred, but the measures are now in place, officials said.

"You implement these safety features for employees and customers, but there's no such thing as a 100% guarantee, unless you're Ft. Knox," said company spokesman Greg Young. "Even if you do put these things in place, you can't guard against someone throwing the dice and deciding where they are going to hit."

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How to Keep the

Workplace Secure:

* Be aware of people entering and leaving the store.

* Lock doors when not in use.

* Avoid working alone, particularly at night.

* Keep as little cash as necessary in register.

* Make front counter visible from the street.

* Trim shrubs that block view into the store.

* Avoid large signs or displays in windows.

* Install bright lights in and around the store.

* Install alarm system, surveillance cameras and bulletproof screen for front counter.

* Encourage employees to raise concerns about workplace security.

* Organize neighborhood business watch.

Sources: Long Beach Police Department, Cal/OSHA

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