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I’m an essential worker, but holiday retail treats me like I’m disposable

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“The most wonderful time of the year” can be very stressful — especially if you’re a retail worker like me.  

I work at Dollar General. Being a retail worker during a pandemic has been difficult — I never planned to be a frontline worker. I’m grateful for my job and pride myself on taking great care of my customers. But for someone considered an “essential worker,” I’m certainly not treated like I’m essential.  

Retail workers are humans, just like everyone else. We have families and lives outside of work. But retail work practices are inhumane, and no time of the year is that clearer than during the holiday season.  

My daughter is six years old and is on the autism spectrum. She requires special child care when I’m at work, which is manageable when I have time to arrange for care. But too often workers like myself are told to work shifts – sometimes doubles – at the last minute. And when I’m faced with a choice of working or caring for my daughter, I will choose my daughter every time. But that affects my livelihood. 

My income from Dollar General is critical to keeping my family afloat. One of the biggest challenges of being a retail worker is the unpredictability of hours — during much of the year, it can be hard to get scheduled for a full 40 hours, creating serious financial stress as my earnings fluctuate week to week. 

During the busy holiday shopping season, there’s the opposite problem. Especially during this pandemic holiday season, employees are run ragged. I have shifts where I’ll be the lone worker for hours, making it difficult to attend to all customers’ needs, let alone take a bathroom break. There’s also the exhausting experience of “clopening” — closing the store late at night and then opening it the next morning. When I would close and open, I was lucky to catch a few hours of sleep between shifts. 

Current scheduling practices do not treat workers like humans. And workers who push back against these practices face repercussions. When I request certain hours because I have to take care of my daughter, I face backlash from management. When I had surgery and fought to get adequate time to heal, I feared I might lose my job.  

These aren’t problems specific to Dollar General. Across the country, “essential” retail workers are treated like we’re disposable. This hurts workers, and it hurts companies too. Employees that are rested, healthy and able to care for their families make better employees and a more stable workforce. There’s a reason why there’s so much turnover in these types of positions: when companies treat workers like they’re disposable, workers leave. There would likely be fewer “help wanted” signs up this holiday season if retail workers were treated (and paid) like the essential workers we are.  

Unfortunately, most companies don’t care about workers. That’s why workers need Fair Workweek legislation.  

Federal bills like the Schedules That Work Act and the Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act are needed for workers like me. The Schedules That Work Act incentivizes companies to create stable and predictable schedules, protects workers from facing retaliation for asking for schedule changes, and guarantees workers 11 hours of rest between shifts.  

The Part-Time Worker Bill of Rights Act makes more part-time employees eligible for family and medical leave, allows part-time workers to participate in employers’ pension plans and requires large employers to offer available hours to current part-time employees before hiring new employees.  

By passing these bills, Congress can help retail workers like me, and workers in other industries as well, have access to predictable, stable hours and humane work practices. This will reduce the mental health toll of being constantly on-call for shifts that may or may not happen, and decrease the financial stress of depending on paychecks that may or may not come.   

The holidays are supposed to be a time for cheer. For many retail workers, though, that’s not the case. This year, I will be working at the store instead of being with my daughter. But if Congress passes Fair Workweek legislation, next year retail workers like myself will have a lot to cheer about. 

Kenya Slaughter works at Dollar General in Alexandria, La., and advocates for Fair Workweek legislation with The Center for Popular Democracy Action. 

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