Friday, May 24, 2024

Dollar store employees protest for safer, better work conditions

by BIZ Magazine

Greg Larose | Louisiana Illuminator

NEW ORLEANS – Shawn Byrd was working the checkout line at a Family Dollar store in September near the St. Claude neighborhood when a man who had been shot outside came through the front door. Byrd stayed with the man on the floor while waiting for first responders to arrive.

“I’m chilling in the front. He comes in the door, he’s bleeding out and stuff,” Byrd said in an interview. “I’m holding him, holding his chest, these two bullet wounds… holding his head up, because he’s like, hitting his head down. He’s not breathing. I gotta tell him to keep breathing. I’m trying to remind him, you know, trying to keep him alive.”

Byrd was among dozens of dollar store employees from around Louisiana who took part Saturday in a protest march that convened outside the Family Dollar location. They demanded the parent companies of Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Dollar General address safety and staffing concerns at their stores.

The corporations that own the stores are publicly traded on the stock market and have reported billions in profit in recent years. They’ve also amassed millions in federal fines for workplace safety violations.

Less than 3 miles from Byrd’s store, four people were shot, including two customers, last Thursday at a Dollar Tree store in Gentilly. Gunfire hit two teens outside the store, and a man and woman shopping inside were struck, according to the New Orleans Police Department.

Such incidents at dollar stores are not limited to New Orleans.

Two years ago, Kenya Slaughter said she was working at a Dollar General store in Alexandria when an irate woman armed with a large knife entered the business. She was one of just two employees in the store at the time.

“It was basically like I was alone,” Slaughter said. “So I had to call the police to get her escorted out of there because I don’t want to go in there with an irate customer with a big ol’ knife.”

She recalled one instance where a man found a place on a shopping aisle to defecate.

“We shouldn’t have to clean up anyone else’s feces. That’s absolutely horrible,” she said.

Dollar store workers shared similar accounts to explain why they want to see an increase in minimum staffing, especially during night hours.

One demand is for their companies to create the position of community safety manager, an in-store employee at each location who is trained in de-escalation and self-defense techniques. It’s a preferred option to provide security or off-duty police details, who they say escalate situations, protect property over community safety, and focus on arrests.”

Beyond crime and safety concerns, they say customer service suffers when there aren’t enough employees on hand. Higher wages would go a long way toward attracting and retaining workers, they said.

Dollar store employees make between $9 and $13 an hour in the New Orleans area, according to a spokesperson for Step Up Louisiana, a grassroots labor advocacy group that organized Saturday’s protest. Protestors called for a $25 hourly wage.

At one time, Slaughter was an assistant store manager but said she had to take a demotion because the work hours didn’t allow her to prioritize care for her daughter. Even at the lower-rung role – with lower pay – she’s still asked to handle management-level responsibilities.

“I just really feel that’s unfair,” she said. “If I’m going to train, if I’m going to be in here by myself, if I’m going to be security – which I just refuse to be security and put myself in harm’s way – they want you to pay attention to people that may be shoplifting. That’s what they’re asking you to do, but that’s not what I’m paid for.”

The public relations office of Dollar General issued a statement in response to questions.

“At Dollar General, we strive to create an environment where employees can grow their careers, serve their communities and feel valued and heard. To that end, employees are encouraged to provide feedback through the several company-provided communication channels. We are committed to listening to this and other employee feedback and working collaboratively to address concerns,” the statement reads. “Creating and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for our store teams and customers is a top priority, and our policies, procedures and training programs are designed and implemented with this priority in mind.”

Management and corporate representatives have not been responsive to feedback, Slaughter said.

“Whatever I bat to them, they just pitch right back,” she said.”It’s a back and forth. It’s no use. I’ve spoken with a few executives, and nothing against any of them personally because they think that I’m just this person who’s trying to tear them down. I just want them to do better. Like literally, Dollar General could be amazing for our communities, but they’re not.”

Dollar Tree Stores Inc., the parent company for Dollar Tree and Family Dollar stores, acknowledged receipt of the Illuminator’s questions about workers’ demands but did not respond by an end-of-business Monday deadline.

Kenya Slaughter, a Dollar General employee from Alexandria, addresses fellow protestors
Kenya Slaughter, a Dollar General employee from Alexandria, addresses fellow protestors during a march Dec. 20, 2022, in New Orleans. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
Dollar stores prosper despite recession
Deep discount stores have fared well through the economic downturn, posting billions of dollars in profits in recent years. While retail giants such as Target and Walmart saw significant decreases in their net income for the third quarter, Dollar Tree and Dollar General are on pace to meet or exceed earnings projections for 2022.

Both companies continue on a growth track, continuing to open new stores with a preference for small, underserved rural areas and urban locations where there’s typically a lack of shopping options.

Dollar General, which has more than 18,000 stores in 48 states, added 734 new locations and remodeled 1,550 others this year as of Oct. 31. It’s on track to build 1,025 new stores for fiscal 2022, including its first in Mexico.

Dollar Tree Stores Inc. has nearly 16,300 stores in 48 states and five Canadian provinces. It planned to open 590 new locations and remodel 800 more this year while closing just 128.

By comparison, omnipresent national drugstore chains are in downsizing mode.

Walgreens, with 8,800 locations across the country, is closing 900 stores. Its competitor, CVS Health, intends to shutter the same number out of its more than 9,000 by 2024.

The CEOs of Dollar General and Dollar Tree both have base salaries in excess of $1 million. When bonuses and stock incentives are factored into their compensation, they both have the potential to earn well in excess of $10 million annually.

Dollar Tree reported $1.34 billion in net income for 2021, and Dollar General’s earnings topped $2.65 billion a year ago. Sales for both companies have rebounded significantly since the peak of COVID-19 pandemic, leveling off some in 2022 but at or better than pre-pandemic levels.

For Slaughter, the companies’ financials don’t add up for employees who just want a livable wage and better working conditions.

“My personal opinion is that they don’t want to spend the money to do it,” she said. “That would require them to spend more money, which will take away from their take home pay. … Because what other reason wouldn’t a billion-dollar company want to provide their employees with a safe feeling?”

Dollar store employees march in protest in New Orleans, seeking safer working conditions and better pay. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
Dollar store employees march in protest n New Orleans, seeking safer working conditions and better pay, Dec. 10, 2022. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)
Safety records highly suspect
Dollar Tree has routinely been in the crosshairs of federal safety officials. In August, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration noted the company has a history of “flagrantly ignoring workplace safety regulations.”

From January through July, OSHA conducted more than 500 inspections at Dollar Tree and Family Dollar locations and found more than 300 violations. Offenses include blocked access to fire extinguishers, electrical equipment and exits, boxes stacked unsafely and merchandise left unsafely on the customer floorspace.

Following a string of problematic inspections at two locations in Ohio, OSHA fined Dollar Tree Stores Inc. $1.23 million for ignoring workplace safety rules. The agency’s online records indicate the company is contesting the fines.

In October, OSHA announced $1.8 million in fines for Dollar General stores in Alabama, Florida and Georgia. On Nov. 1, it followed that with $2.77 million in proposed penalties for health and safety violations at stores in the same three states.

Since 2017, OSHA has assessed more than $12.3 million in initial penalties against Dollar General. Offenders can reach settlements with the agency to significantly lower their fines.

Participants in Saturday’s protest reported many of the same workplace safety issues at their stores. Some attribute them to a lack of available manpower. For example, they’re asked to remove boxes from high shelves and unload trucks without assistance or proper safety precautions.

“When you’re at work, the last thing you want to worry about is something happening to you at work,” Slaughter said. “You’re at work just as much as you’re at home. That’s your other home. You basically live there. So why not, as a billion-dollar company, make your employees feel safe just by providing more people in the store?

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