It’s Black Friday, and retail workers deserve more

By Caitlin Kelly

Today, thousands of Americans rush out to start their holiday shopping. It’s called Black Friday because it’s the beginning of the season that pushes retailers into the black — i.e. profitability.

While shoppers clamor for more product, more discounts and even more hours in which to spend their money, please pause to remember the hard-working people who serve them, since 70 percent of the American economy is created by consumer spending.

Retail workers also deserve more:

— More money (most earn minimum wage)

— More respect (until you’ve served them, it’s hard to believe how rude and nasty some shoppers can be)

— More hours (store managers scrimp on paid hours because every other cost is already spent)

— More opportunities for raises, bonuses and promotions into a decent wage. (No worker adding profits to the bottom line should be so fiscally punished)

Here’s my op-ed in today’s New York Daily News, America’s sixth-largest newspaper and the last newsroom in which I worked as a reporter.

An excerpt:

In a time of growing income inequality, no one should assume that retail staff are uneducated or have no higher ambition than folding T-shirts for hours. RAP also found that more than 50% of them either have a college degree or are working toward one.

Some, like our store manager Joe, who fought with U.S. Special Forces in Mogadishu, have served their country overseas. And some enjoy retail work and consider it a meaningful career choice.

For others, it’s a stopgap, a place to earn a wage while awaiting a better-paid opportunity. One multi-lingual young lawyer I know recently made the move from folding T-shirts at the Gap to working at a major investment house, the fortunate culmination of a lengthy and frustrating job search.

These workers deserve and demand more respect and better economic treatment.

Walmart (Photo credit: matteson.norman)

As some of you may know, a frenzied crowd of shoppers trampled a 34-year-old Walmart associate. Jdimytai Damour — in his first week on the job on Long Island, NY — to death in 2008.

Walmart has yet to pay the $7,000 fine levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration:

Sitting on appeal with a review commission, the case of Jdimytai Damour’s death highlights how corporations can choose to fend off modest penalties over workplace dangers for years on end, according to occupational health experts.

For a company with sales of $466 billion last fiscal year, the $7,000 fine from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration represents little more than a single store’s rounding error. Walmart would have vastly outspent that sum simply in legal fees devoted to fighting the penalty. But the world’s largest retailer is less concerned with the monetary fine than with the broader implications of the case. A negative ruling could compel Walmart and other retail companies like it to take additional safety precautions for workers or face new liabilities.

“It’s not about the penalty,” said Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA analyst who’s now a lecturer at George Washington University. “It’s this interest in seeing how far Walmart can push back against the decision.”

I’m aware that for some people — including readers here — Walmart offers low prices and may be the only shopping choice in their area. I will never ever shop there.

I worked part-time, from 2007 to 2009, at an upscale mall near my home in suburban New York selling for The North Face, costly outdoor clothing manufactured — as most apparel now is — in low-wage nations across the globe, from Peru to China. I earned $11/hour, with no commission, for a job that demanded devoted attention to 14 simultaneous tasks, from spotting shoplifters (no store security staff) to scrubbing the toilets. We were given daily sales goals. The lowest was $400, the highest — during the holidays — $6,000.

malled cover LOW

It was the hardest job I’ve ever done. I’m glad I did it. I’ve never seen the world the same way since then.

It showed me a sort of corporate brutality I could never (naively) have imagined had I not stepped behind the cash wrap. Shoppers assumed we were stupid, uneducated, unable to get or keep any other sort of work, when many of us had lost much better-paid jobs in the recession. Or we were going to college, and/or supporting a family.

My second book, “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” details my experience, as well as that of hundreds of others nationwide.

Yet the word most industry experts use to describe these workers?


Retail work is the largest source of new jobs in the U.S., yet most of them  — part-time, with very few hours and no benefits — pay such low wages that workers end up using food stamps to supplement their meager incomes. Enough already with corporate welfare!




11 thoughts on “It’s Black Friday, and retail workers deserve more

  1. Aside from the problematic issues of underpaid workers and cheaply made products, I have truly never understood the appeal of shopping in crowds on Black Friday.

    I worked for a couple years for a large retailer while in college. It never failed to amaze me at what people would put themselves through based on what the retailer promoted as savings (the annual jacking up of base prices so that it would look like something was marked down). Most people looked stressed out and harried – it just doesn’t seem worth it.

    And the weird concert ticket line build up to a store’s opening at zero dark thirty is just bizarre. Aren’t these stores open all the time, as it is?

    I knew you’d weigh in today, of all days, Caitlin – hope you had a nice holiday!

    1. So good to hear from you again!

      I’m really glad I was able to place that op-ed — as the NYT turned it down. I did a brief line-up only once, in Canada on Boxing Day (their BF) and it was totally not worth it.

      Yesterday was great…hope yours was as well.

  2. I totally agree. Aside from the question of why on earth we need to take a holiday that is all about gratitude and merge it with a fabricated one that is about greed, there’s the fact that retail stores’ ever-earlier Black Friday openings mean that too many workers don’t get a choice about whether they can spend Thanksgiving with their families. I think that America can afford to have a few days when the retail world shuts down so everyone–its workers included–can enjoy time celebrating what’s really important, and it would be nice if we could prevent those few still-existing days from being absorbed into the retail madness. (I may or may not have spouted off about this in my blog, too).

      1. What with a short staff at work and planning another cross-country move (NC bound!), I’ve been off the blogosphere for a while.

        But yes, I really don’t get Black Friday. That convergence of crowds, early mornings and impulse purchase decisions doesn’t sit well with me. Plus, I wouldn’t want to miss out on the post-Thanksgiving turkey sandwiches.

  3. I don’t know if you know, Caitlin, but Canada has had to jump on the Black Friday bandwagon, or at least Toronto has, to try to keep shoppers from streaming down to the States today. Some stores here opened at 5 a.m. – as if retail jobs aren’t already brutal enough. The whole thing is disgusting. What was great about today, though, was meeting my daughter and her 18 month old son at Winner’s to buy him some shoes – there was no one at Winner’s today, they were all standing in lines at the Eaton’s Centre.

    The thing that makes me really despair for our planet is that apparently as the economies of third world countries improve, they want to waste their money on useless crap, just like us.

    Thank you for your article.

  4. Black Friday has evolved into an ugly contact sport. Retail workers who are forced or coerced to work this dreadful tradition are victims of the game — as if they weren’t treated badly enough, as you’ve experienced yourself.

    Needs to stop.

  5. Pingback: Black Friday Finds | Broken Penguins

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