As soon as November began, college students began the countdown to Thanksgiving break—a short but much-needed respite from classes and a chance to eat a home-cooked meal in a familiar place. Even for those not celebrating the holiday this year or who are unable to go home for the break, it is at the very least a moment to breathe in the middle of a busy semester.
Sadly, many retail workers will be having quite the opposite experience this holiday, as more stores decide to open up their doors to the onslaught of Black Friday shoppers on the 27th. Just a few years ago, people were taken aback when stores were opening at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day—now, that seems like child’s play, as Kmart announces its 42-hour sale and JCPenney its 5 p.m. opening. For these employees, there will be no sitting (for 10-14 hours on end), let alone sitting down to a meal and dozing off while watching the football game.
They will be restocking shelves and breaking up fights over video game consoles and Uggs, and being paid criminally low wages to do so. As this issue makes headlines, the perspectives of the workers are often sacrificed for that of the consumer, hiding the real problem from all of us.
In this country, retail jobs are seen as menial, simple and temporary. However, the growing reality is that many Americans are forced to make a living out of them, as they have no other choice. Retail employees are no longer teenagers or young adults working through college, but adults of all ages with families to support, bills to pay and households to run. Although the demographics of those occupying these positions has changed, the industry seems to work against them on issues such as this.
Most retailers will make absolutely no concessions for a person’s family life. If a single mother wishes to schedule a day off to take her child trick-or-treating on Halloween, her request will likely be denied. If a father wants to attend his child’s school play and schedule around it, he will likely find no changes to his schedule no matter how far in advance he asked for this one, small change, even if he offers to work a less-desirable shift in exchange. Although these employees at these stores are treated as part-time workers while being overscheduled without benefits, they are expected to treat the job as a full-time position or job.
These employees do not request vacation time to vacation in the Hamptons or backpack through Europe—they don’t even request vacation time—they only ask that their schedule be slightly more accommodating to their family life that already suffers from their irregular work hours and lack of benefits in many aspects.
The little things that would allow them and their families a sliver of normalcy and would not interfere with the productivity of their employers are treated as huge demands, as if they have no right to ask for such frivolities. The public’s failure to recognize the injustices suffered by those who check out their purchases and bag their groceries every day only hurts their situation.
The argument that “Doctors, police and firefighters have to work on holidays, so what are these people complaining about?” often—disturbingly—arises in this discussion. However, those who purport that the situation faced by retail workers who on average make $21,410 a year is akin to that of doctors who had the privilege of an excellent education which led them to a career (career, not job) that affords them a six-figure-salary and a prestigious job title is absurd. These people chose their career, knowing exactly what to expect, and trained for it for years. Conversely, retail workers are not living their dream, or any semblance of it. They could not afford to go to college, or just were not interested. Nonetheless, they, too, have the same amount of responsibilities to keep themselves and their families alive with some degree of comfort and financial safety.
Even police and firemen and women make more than double the average salary of a retail worker—note the word salary, as they are guaranteed to make this amount by the end of the year, while retail workers must log every hour in order to receive their wage. Ultimately, these arguments are nullified because doctors, medics, police and fire personnel work to save lives in dire situations that are, unfortunately, bound to happen. Does our society really equate providing consumers with discounted iPhones and toys with saving a family from a burning house or performing surgery on a human being?
The perceived necessity of these extreme practices is perhaps the most unsettling part of the issue. Retailers often force workers to work these days—no, they are not holding a gun to their heads, but for those with no other options, threatening to fire them if they do not work during Thanksgiving is practically the same. Walmart employees are required to sign a contract agreeing to work a 12 to 14 hour shift on Thanksgiving or be written up—something that many employees cannot afford. If they instead decide to call out on the holiday, they are told not to come back to their job.
As a result, not only is the employee overworked and missing precious time with loved ones, but their families also might miss out altogether if no one is able to prepare a meal besides the employed family member. Consumers only add fuel to the flame by taking part in these sales and therein demonstrating a desire to shop on Thanksgiving. If people would just stay home and actually spend time with their families—which only grows rarer—and held off their apparently insuppressible urge to shop, retailers would get the message that the “Black Friday creep” is unwanted, and change may occur.
Thanksgiving itself (counting Black Friday as its own) is one holiday not entirely overtaken by consumerism like Christmas, Halloween and Easter. There are no Thanksgiving candies, gifts or CDs—it is centered around a home-cooked meal and time with family, and it is often the one and only time when entire families get together. But by letting Black Friday overtake Thanksgiving, Americans are letting this holiday slip away and become just another opportunity for retailers to make a profit.
Yes, consumerism is almost as American as Thanksgiving itself, but it is up to consumers to decide where their priorities lie. As it is, they are showing utter disregard for a large part of the workforce that will not get to enjoy this special time. Holidays and the ensuing relaxation, whether one has a family to spend them with or not, should not be a privilege. A single day off would certainly give their employees a reason to be thankful to them, and could show that Americans do, in fact, value the hard work of our entire labor force, much in the spirit of Thanksgiving.
—Sophia Burns ’18 is currently undeclared.