Current Occupation: Student; floor crew at a movie theater (box office, concessions, usher – I've done it all)
Former Occupation: various other retail positions
Contact Information: Currently, I am a graduate student at Pennsylvania State University – Harrisburg, where I am working on my MA in Humanities. My thesis (which will hopefully be done in the spring) will contain a collection of personal essays about my 13+ years of working in various retail jobs. I graduated from Western Michigan University in 2008 with a Bachelors degree in English. Short stories of mine have appeared in the online journal Silverthought as well as in The Binnacle.
And Other Holidays That Aren’t When You Work in Retail
Labor Day was started when several New York City unions joined together to form the Central Labor Union, now known as the New York City Central Labor Council. In 1882 they decided that on September 5th they would hold a parade and picnic to celebrate the hard work of all the laborers in the city. It was a risky proposition because, being a Tuesday, many workers would have to take the day off without pay. Regardless, an estimated 10,000 people showed up to celebrate. By 1887 the celebration had spread to several other states including Colorado and New Jersey. In 1894 the U.S. Congress declared that the first Monday in September would be officially a legal holiday known as Labor Day. A day for the workers.
Today, Labor Day isn’t really considered a major holiday for retail workers as they often don’t get paid time-and-a-half for the day. Retailers usually only consider Thanksgiving and Christmas to be the holidays worthy of overtime pay. I have only worked a few jobs that stayed open on what are considered these two major holidays, but when it is the case, I usually volunteer to work those days. I do so partly so that some of my co-workers who are married with kids can spend the day with their families. I live in a different state than my parents, and so it is infeasible to travel the 10+ hours just for a day-trip, and getting the day before or after the holiday off is nearly impossible. And, I won’t lie it’s nice that, even though it is not required by law, many employers pay their workers time-and-a-half for working on holidays. Although I sometimes think that is to keep the employees from complaining too loudly. My partner and I have gotten used to celebrating holidays on different days. Even if that means eating turkey on a Monday and opening Christmas presents at 11:00 at night on Christmas Eve. He has worked retail in the past, and is understanding of the madness it can create at the end of the year.
And it is always madness. Any day that a majority of working people have off, is going to be a busy day for those in retail who don’t. This isn’t just the big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, either. Many of the places I’ve worked for considered different holidays to be their busiest days of the year. The restaurant where I got my first job thought Mother’s Day was their busiest day, because people were taking their mothers out for a nice buffet and steak dinner. When I worked for a cookie place in the food court of a mall, I was told it would be Valentine’s Day, because cookie cakes were considered to be acceptable last minute gifts from forgetful loved ones. The movie theater I work for now claims that Christmas is the busiest day of the year because often special movies come out on that day. Last year we had close to 3,000 customers on just that one day despite not getting in any real blockbusters. The fact different holidays are busier at different places, and the fact that I’ve worked most of them are probably the reason I’m sort of immune to working on any holiday. After a Wal Mart worker was trampled in the 5:00 A.M. rush on Black Friday, the shopping extravaganza on the day after Thanksgiving, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) released a list of “Crowd Management Safety Guidelines For Retailers.” These days Black Friday is turning into Grey Thursday as it retailers creep further and further into Thanksgiving day itself.
The first Christmas I ever had to work was for a large chain drugstore in 2012. At first thought it was okay that we were open on Christmas because people get sick unexpectedly and need medicine they didn’t know they might need ahead of time. Only, the pharmacy wasn’t open, just the store part. And most of the people that came in that day weren’t there to buy emergency cold medicine, but where there for last minute Christmas gifts. I was absolutely stunned that people would want to buy gifts on the day itself.
That day I got into an argument with a customer who claimed that a sign on the box of cheap fleece blankets was deceptively close to the bin containing higher quality Sherpa blankets, and that I should just give her the $10 discount. Sometimes I am a bad cashier because if the customer is wrong in such an obvious way I will fight them on it until I am told explicitly not to by my manager. I was appalled that she would want to spend twenty minutes quarreling with me on Christmas day. She got her discount, but only because my manager decided we were too busy to fight with her, and that, if she didn’t she would just end up writing the district manager.
Customers always seemed surprised when stores are busy on Thanksgiving and Christmas. To those of us who work in the field, it is common sense. When most people have the day off, those who don’t are going to be busy. The worst thing a customer can say to an employee while physically standing in the building is, “I can’t believe you’re open today!” (it is always said with the exclamation point at the end). It makes me want to reply that if customers like you weren’t here, I wouldn’t have to be, and that you are the reason we’re open today. Instead we’re asked to politely smile and reply something like, “It’s one of the busiest days of the year,” and try to end it there.
I think for many people who work in retail holidays mean different things than those who don’t. I don’t mean to imply that we appreciate them more, but it does give you a different perspective on the whole concept of special days. I would guess that more often than not, it makes workers like myself hate the whole wretched end-of-the year season, from first shipment in of Christmas merchandise sometimes as early as September, to the final chords of It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year the day after Christmas.
Some stores that have never stayed open on holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas are starting to because annual sales are down and they know they can drive up sales on those days. A report by Mastercard indicated that customers spend as much as 70% of their budget in the first two stores they visit on Black Friday, meaning retailers are jockeying to be the first to open on Thanksgiving. Even Macys which in the past steadfastly refused to open on Thanksgiving opened its doors at 8:00 at night last year. Walgreens’s own website claims that, “our research indicates that approximately 97 percent of people see themselves making an impromptu shopping trip this season.” 97 percent.
Workers aren’t necessarily taking all of this lying down, of course. The website change.org has listed 199 separate petitions asking stores ranging from Walmart and Target to Staples and Big Lots to Medieval Times to stay closed on Thanksgiving. Target fought back against one of these petitions, saying they were simply responding to customer feedback, and that employee preferences about working on the day were taken into consideration when scheduling was done. The person responsible for the petition responded with a picture posted in her store showing dates employees were not allowed to ask for off. “Thanksgiving Weeks: November 18 – December 1; Christmas Weeks: December 16 – January 5.” Similar signs posted at various K-Marts also began surfacing. For my part, when I worked at a regional big box chain as a part-time employee I was also told that I couldn’t ask for time off in December, because it wouldn’t be granted. My request that I get an early shift for Christmas Eve (Christmas was the only day of the year the store was closed) because at the time I only lived three hours away from my parents, was denied. I was given the late shift and drove to my parent’s place in the dark in the middle of winter. I called in with fake car problems instead of going in on the day after Christmas that year.
In 1903 Florence Kelly wrote an article titled The Travesty of Christmas, which highlighted the impact of long holiday hours on workers. One of the main concerns in the article is the 1896 repeal of the Mercantile Employees Law, which restricted the number of hours women under 21 and boys under 16 could work in a day and in the week. The law was far from perfect, as these restrictions were lifted for much of the month of December, but Kelly felt it was better than nothing at all. This article started a movement that urged consumers to “Shop Early” to save workers from unnecessary extra stress of the holiday season. The movement lasted until World War II and then, sadly, faded away. While today working conditions are vastly improved, the designation of special days where workers of all sorts can enjoy a day of rest seems to be fading away.
I started working at my first job in 2001, when I began working for a buffet restaurant. The first Thanksgiving I was asked to work wasn’t until nearly ten years later in 2010, when I was a cashier at a regional big box store. The first Christmas I worked was in 2012 at a chain drugstore. I didn’t really get into the major holiday game until late in my retail career, and came at a time when I lived an inconvenient distance away from my family to make day-trips unrealistic. So, while I don’t mind being at work on these days if I have to, it does raise questions of fairness and equality. I feel like I’ve always been less upset about having to be at work on these days than at the fact that customers can’t adjust their attitudes to be better than they would on any other day. That doesn’t mean that I don’t occasionally get bummed out when I’m driving home from work at 11:59 on December 31st, or when I have to go outside the store to see fireworks on July 4th. Or wonder whether my family has started eating yet on Thanksgiving as I’m serving customers. I don’t think you can ever completely stop feeling like an outsider observing those who get to celebrate holidays as they like.
Some people argue that retail workers shouldn’t complain because emergency workers like policemen, firemen, and hospital workers are also asked to work on holidays. However, these workers provide life-saving services. Most retail establishments don’t. You could say that, in both of these positions employees know what they’re signing up for when they take the job, and that if the worker doesn’t want to work on these days, they shouldn’t take that job. But emergency workers are compensated in ways retail employees aren’t. Part-time retail employees aren’t often offered benefits like health insurance, and most only make minimum-wage. This past Easter I realized that time-and-a-half pay for me, making seventy-five cents above the minimum wage meant that I only made $12 an hour. Police officers make about $27 an hour normally, by comparison.
So why are we privileging some jobs over others? Why are people who already have benefits and better pay get special days off, when those at the bottom of the job pool have to work on those days? Retail work is every bit as stressful and demanding as many of these other jobs, and can be more so on these holidays. Labor Day is the only day of the year I ever get on a soap box and ask my friends and family members to abstain from shopping or going out to eat. After all, it isn’t called “White Collar Labor Day,” it is just “Labor Day” and it is supposed to be a day for all laborers. Of course, if employers can’t be bothered to give their workers the day of the laborer off, I don’t know why we ever expect that we would get other days off. If we’re going to designate certain days of the year as being more special than others, why is it that only those privileged enough not to have to stand behind a cash register the only ones who get to take full advantage of those days?
“Working on Holidays: The New Class Divide”
By Shamus Khan
Time Magazine, 11-19-12
“Here’s the Real Reason Stores Are Open for Black Friday Sales on Thanksgiving”
By Claire O’Connor
“A Century of Misery for Retail Employees Just Before Christmas”
By Connor Friedersdorf
The Atlantic, 12-24-13
“Target Responds to Backlash Over Thanksgiving Night Black Friday Sale”
By Matt Brownell
Daily Finance, 11-17-12
Photo of ‘Blackout Days’ at Target
“Another Kmart Sign Emerges Demanding Employees Work on Holidays”
By Jillian Berman
The Huffington Post, 11-8-13
“Retail Workers Ask Themselves What Thanksgiving with Family is Worth”
By Dave Jamieson
The Huffington Post, 11-28-13
“Wal-Mart Employee Trampled to Death”
By Robert D. McFadden and Angela Macropoulos
The New York Times, 11-28-2008
U.S. Department of Labor:
The History of Labor Day:
“DOL’s Historian on the History of Labor Day”
By Linda Stinson
Work Hours: Holidays: