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Pittsburgh will soon offer to train food service and retail workers in de-escalation, naloxone use

Katie Blackley
90.5 WESA

Pittsburgh will soon offer crisis support training to retail and food service workers who routinely engage with people suffering from mental-health issues, homelessness and addiction. City Council unanimously passed a measure Tuesday to make that training available to workers.

The bill directs the city’s Office of Community Health and Safety to develop training resources for coffee shops, restaurants and retail stores for workers “that experience countless interactions with those experiencing crises.”

Service industry workers spoke in favor of the training during City Council’s regular meeting Tuesday. Taylor Stessney, a bartender at 40 North at Alphabet City and co-founder of Pittsburgh Restaurant Workers Aid, urged members to authorize the training and to help workers access it.

“Hospitality means taking care of one another … beyond the culinary and retail aspects of our jobs,” Stessney said. "The folks we want to help are friends, family and neighbors.”

She argued that many food service and retail workers themselves struggle with financial instability, addiction and mental health, and said the training could be beneficial when offering aid to customers in need.

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Other Downtown business owners spoke out last week about routinely finding customers after an overdose in their store restrooms or on a curb near their front door.

Shane Compton, owner of Creative Coffee and Supply, said Tuesday that Downtown businesses have been pleading with the city to help them contend with customers who need support beyond what his small staff could provide.

“A lot of my employees are very young and they're either in college or they're just graduated from college," he said. "They have a limited amount of experience and knowledge on the types of situations that they're encountering."

Despite that inexperience, Compton said his staff is willing to provide the extra support to people who come into the coffee shop. He argued training his staff would “put power in our hands to de-escalate situations, to mitigate conflict, to help those in need get the resources that they do need.”

He said he hopes his coffee shop can be “a bridge between those who do not have the resources they need and those who can supply them.”

The bill, introduced by Councilor Deb Gross last month, would establish public resources for workers to learn more about de-escalation, overdose response, naloxone administration and how to support people experiencing homelessness.

Gross said Tuesday that the measure does not create a new position within the city, but expands work already being done by staff. Council members and the Office of Community Health and Safety discussed the potential for hiring a new coordinator position last week, but Gross said Tuesday that a separate bill would be needed to establish such a position.

For now, the city will expand safety trainings already offered by the Public Safety Department. Topics of instruction include bleeding control, naloxone administration and de-escalation. Gross said the trainings have been effective for the city’s internal use, but that offering the instruction to service industry workers would have an even larger impact.

“We've missed an entire section of our residents that are actually exposed to these situations in great numbers, and that's our frontline retail and service workers,” Gross said. “I'm hoping that we can expand the work that we already know how to do.”

Kiley Koscinski covers city government, policy and how Pittsburghers engage with city services. She also works as a fill-in host for All Things Considered. Kiley has previously served as a producer on The Confluence and Morning Edition.