Cowardly. That’s how David Williams, who works at a Dollar General in New Orleans, describes the discount retail chain’s resistance to workers’ demands for better wages and working conditions.
Raised in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward, Williams has worked at Dollar General for around two-and-a-half years. He says that his starting wage was around $8 an hour; it is now $9.25. Williams works part-time, and says that paying bills on Dollar General’s wages is “a constant struggle.”
“I never know when I’m gonna have my next meal, I never know when I’ll be able to pay my rent,” says Williams. “I’m constantly figuring out if I need to ask for extensions on bills, and then I’m not sure I can even hit the extension’s deadline. It’s a constant struggle thinking about this every single day.”
Williams is one of more than 150 Dollar General employees who traveled to the company’s annual shareholder meeting in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, on Wednesday, May 25, to demand that company executives address low wages, understaffing, and hazardous working conditions. The workers were joined by labor advocacy groups such as the Fight for $15, United for Respect, and Step Up Louisiana, as well as workers from Amazon, Starbucks, Walmart, Family Dollar, and Dollar Tree.
Dollar General has enjoyed steady profits despite the pandemic, and CEO Todd Vasos was paid $1.7 million in 2021, a 37 percent pay bump that amounts to 986 times more than the median wage of one of the company’s 163,000 workers in the more than 18,000 stores across the United States.
A recent report from the Economic Policy Institute finds that 92 percent of Dollar General employees make less than $15 an hour. Twenty-two percent make less than $10 an hour; Williams is just one of them.
The pandemic was the final straw for many of these workers, who have begun speaking up about not only low wages but pervasive health and safety concerns. The Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has cited Dollar General fifty-five times since 2016, fining the company a total of $3.6 million. As OSHA regional administrator Kurt Petermeyer said following a recent citation, Dollar General has a “long and extensive history of workplace safety violations” and “blatant and continued disregard for the safety of their employees.”
Williams says that his biggest concern is the heat. He drinks two Powerades and a large bottle of water during his shift to stave off dehydration. When he speaks to management about the temperature in the store, they often say that the air-conditioning is on and working, and don’t seem concerned about the temperature.
“I’m pretty sure that when it’s that hot and you’re trying to do your job as well, who’s to say that you can’t have a heat stroke,” says Williams. Asked about working at Dollar General more generally, he characterizes the job as “the ugliest thing you’ll ever see.”
“It’s a pain so unbearable that you can’t describe it. That’s how horrific this is. Enough is enough. Dollar store workers put too much into this to get paid as they do,” he adds.
Faulty air-conditioning was also a problem for Mary Gundel, a manager of a Dollar General in Tampa, Florida, who was fired after her TikTok about the company’s hazardous working conditions went viral.
“At my store, I found mold in the cooler and we had to work without proper ventilation when the air conditioner broke when it was hot outside — and that’s just one location,” said Gundel, who also took part in the Goodlettsville rally. “As a manager, not a day went by where we were properly staffed, forcing me to go beyond my duties to unpack boxes, clear store aisles, or work countless hours in overtime. It’s appalling that it had to take a viral video of my store’s conditions for the corporate executives to begin paying attention.”
Thus far, attempts to unionize Dollar General stores have been defeated by the company. In 2020, Dollar General shut down a Missouri store that voted to unionize. In 2021, the company retained union-busting law firm Labor Relations Institute, paying consultants $2,700 per day to beat a union drive at a Connecticut location.
Workers see the Goodlettsville rally as the next step in increasing pressure on the company. Coming as it does at a time when other low-wage workers in the retail sector are beginning to organize other large companies — from Starbucks to Apple, Target, and Trader Joe’s — Dollar General workers say that now is the time to change what has become intolerable.
“This is a very scary feeling, but I feel like I’m doing something right, not just for myself but for the people who live the same struggle as I do,” says Williams.
This is everybody’s fight. Everybody has a voice. The ones who are voiceless actually do have a voice and it’s up to you to use that voice for what you want and what you need. Demand it, because you deserve it. Everybody who works hard, everybody who puts their blood, sweat, and tears into this job and gets paid little to nothing? You deserve more than what you get.