Retailers abusing workers: Black Friday’s just the tip of the iceberg

New York shoppers lining up for Black Friday bargains two years ago, back when Black Friday didn't start until, um, Friday.
(Stan Honda / AFP/Getty Images)

The public sure is angry about the Black Friday creep into Thanksgiving day, with sales clerks and other store employees forced to leave family gatherings early or forgo them altogether in order to sell people goods that might be cheaper than they would be in a couple of weeks, or might not.

It’s not a heartwarming thought, for sure. But why doesn’t the public get a whole lot angrier about the shenanigans stores inflict on their employees the other 363 days of the year (which will probably become 364 pretty soon, when stores realize they could get a head start on their after-Christmas sales by not waiting until after Christmas)?

Retail stores commonly hire as many part-time employees as possible so they won’t have to give benefits as basic as a sick day off. They require employees to keep their time free for the days they’re scheduled to work the next week — but the store thinks nothing of calling them on slow sales days to tell them not to bother coming in. Or worse, after the sales clerks have dressed for work and spent the time and money to commute to the job, the store sends them home mid-shift because too few customers are showing up. Those aren’t hours of paid vacation, you can be sure. People who already earn low, low wages are suddenly stripped of work hours with no opportunity to arrange in advance for other ways to make money.


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No one would remain employed very long if he or she called in to the boss minutes before the work day was to start, saying, “Someone else will pay me 50 cents more an hour today, so I’m not showing up.”

It’s basic courtesy, right? Maybe at the social level, people feel more comfortable canceling plans on one another at the last moment. But when it comes to business, time is money — and at these wages, money for basic sustenance. On both sides, schedules should be honored.

People have always worked holidays — gas station attendants, nurses, police, journalists — when they were needed. And with families so scattered and overwhelmed, I’m seeing more friends whose Thanksgiving gatherings are held the weekend before or two weeks after. What matters isn’t the formally declared holiday but the feasting time together in service of gratitude.

I’m no fan of the Thanksgiving shopping trend, but the outrage over holiday work hours seems like one of those easy hits, full of the symbolism that gets people posting on Facebook, talking boycott or calling for new work laws. Yes, the creep into this family and national tradition is a sad sign of greed, but it’s a smaller one than the really damaging effects of greed on low-wage retail workers all year long. Let’s not allow the easy outrage to distract us from the bigger picture.


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