Labor

Black Friday Workers Face the Annual Stress Test

Friday, November 23, 2012

Some started handling "doorbuster" events yesterday, on Thanksgiving. Others are getting up at dawn today. The second of two stories on retail workers' scheduling stress.



Black Friday at Home Depot

Credit: Chris Waits/waitscm

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(WOMENSENEWS)--It is 4 a.m. and Adriana Saavedra is waking up to start her 16-hour day.

It's Black Friday and she is the opening manager at Charlotte Russe, a non-unionized women's clothing store based in San Diego, Calif.

She is scheduled to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and her commute is an hour long each way.

Still groggy from a turkey hangover, Saavedra will be entering the Paramus Park Mall, in Paramus Park, N.J., and facing the high-energy, disarray and adrenaline of the retail sector's highest-pressure day of the year, widely seen as an indicator of the entire make-or-break holiday season.

As part of the work force on this day--haunted by memories of tramplings and the fatality of one Wal-Mart employee--she will be in the slight majority. Women are 51.2 percent of retail salespeople, according to 2011 Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Saavedra isn't happy about the prospect of a grueling 12-hour shift. "I don't think a person should work more than eight hours on Black Friday unless it is under extreme circumstances," she said. "One thing this company needs to take into consideration is that customer service is not going to be the same if the manager is exhausted."

Saavedra is also worried about how her knees will feel after a 12-hour shift. She's hoping to take an hour break but knows it could easily be less than that if the store is busy.

Saavedra said she tries to help out her Black Friday staffers by bringing them coffee and covering them when they need a quick break.

Her store was closed on Thanksgiving, but this year many other retailers jumped the gun on Black Friday and started "doorbuster" sales in the late afternoon or evening of Thanksgiving, opening their doors earlier than ever.

Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Toys R Us and Sears opened at 8 p.m. and Target at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving. Michaels, a craft store based in Irving, Texas, opened on Thanksgiving from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. and again at 7 a.m. today.

A Different Reality

Saavedra's counterparts in unionized stores face a quite different set of Black Friday conditions.

"Black Friday is just a normal work day," said Sherry Hamilton-Elder, a 14-year vet at Macy's, the national department store based in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Just crazy early hours, but that is part of retail."

She said some Macy's workers have to open early, at 12 a.m. on Black Friday, and must be in by 11:30 p.m., still technically Thanksgiving Day, to have the store ready. For that, they will be paid time and a half for their whole shift because they were required to be in on a holiday.

Scheduled shifts are only eight hours and workers have the option of extending their shift if they want to work longer hours.

Hamilton-Elder usually prefers the opening midnight shift so she can get out earlier.

She currently works at a unionized Macy's in Parkchester, a neighborhood in the Bronx, N.Y. She recommends that retail workers band together to make these conditions more standard: "I want to note that if retail workers and establishments got together and unionized, things would be better for everyone."

As of 2011 only 4.9 percent of the retail work force are union members and only 5.4 percent represented by a union, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Surveys indicate that over half of workers from non-union national chains earn less than $10 an hour, about 34 percent of retail workers surveyed rely on public assistance and more than 70 percent don't obtain health insurance from their jobs, the Retail Action Project, a New York-based advocacy group, and CUNY Murphy Institute, found in a recent report, "Discounted Jobs."

That report also says that female retail workers still suffer a gap in pay--the Institute for Women's Policy Research pegs the wage gap at 75 cents on the dollar-- and are less likely than male co-workers to receive basic benefits such as health care or paid time off.

Renewed Campaign

On Black Friday the Retail Action Project will again be campaigning against unfair practices alongside union members and other allies, this time targeting retailers who opened on Thanksgiving.

The group is launching the Shoppers Alliance petitioning campaign, aimed at educating shoppers about the behind the scenes of Black Friday and asking consumers to unite with workers who had to give up their holiday and family time. Two of the stores being petitioned are Lord and Taylor and K-Mart.

Members will also be traveling to Secaucus, N.J., to stand in solidarity with Wal-Mart workers as part of a planned nation-wide strike in an ongoing protest of shift-hour cuts and poverty-level wages.

Some retailers, including K-Mart, the discount chain based in Hoffman Estates, Ill., assert the Black Friday push is not a hardship on employees because the hours and shifts are made voluntary.

Yana Walton, communications director at the Retail Action Project, rejects that. She says erratic schedules and too few hours during the rest of the year compel workers to work when offered. "It is a false choice," said Walton, who added that if voluntary shift offers aren't picked up, they will be assigned to workers in the end, anyway.

As holiday shopping shifts into high gear many workers face "blackout periods" when they are not allowed time off under almost any circumstance.

Saavedra said for her this period starts at the beginning of November and goes through Jan. 31. "I am worried about making my dentist appointment in December. I have been denied medical appointments before…there's nothing you can do about it."

Saavedra, also a part-time New Jersey City University student, said she had to drop some classes because she requested to not work certain hours when she has class and was denied. Right now she can only attend some classes once every two weeks.

Retail veteran Tami Tyree won't be going through this annual test of endurance this year. In 2008, after more than three decades in retail, she retired from jobs in stores along Manhattan's wealthy Fifth Avenue--Tiffany, Fortunoff and Saks--as well as Macy's, a few blocks West.

'Very Inhumane Thing'

During that time she watched a big shopping event turn into something she now considers monstrous as the industry became more and more competitive. "I kind of saw what the retail world was becoming…so I felt it was a good time for me to get out. It's really a very inhumane thing," Tyree said.

It's a change that Tyree says major discount chains, such as Wal-Mart, have driven with their huge sales held at increasingly unreasonable hours.

"No one thought about opening on Thanksgiving Day back then," said Tyree. "There are three holidays people have off: Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving. I feel like there are no family values anymore, everything is about the dollar and it's just making people work, work, work…but the stores make all the money and the people don't."

She says the problem is mainly focused on discount retailers and not long-established department stores that mainly hold standard Black Friday hours. She believes many retailers can dictate when consumers shop and can avoid unusual hours.

"You can make people shop when you need them to shop, by adding incentives," she said.

Long hours can be particular tough on women whose jobs--usually in high end shops-- require them to wear heels to work and stand for extended periods of time on hard floors.

Studies suggest long-term use of high heels can be punishing and Tyree said that over the course of a career mainly spent in high-end stores, where women "don't dress like nurses," she has witnessed a high degree of surgeries, particularly knee surgeries, to help correct the problems of standing around in high heels all day.

"A retail worker's life is kind of like a basketball player, you start young and you are not really expected to last physically after 20 years," she said.

Maggie Freleng is an editorial assistant for WeNews; she lives in Brooklyn.

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