Kenya Slaughter put up with a lot when she worked at Dollar General. She says her starting pay at the Alexandria, Louisiana, location, one of the dollar-store chain’s nearly twenty thousand shops, was around $9 an hour. A woman once ran into the store with a butcher knife, locking herself in the break room and refusing to leave. Faulty air conditioning was a problem too.
“We can’t even control our own air,” Slaughter told me, echoing a complaint that is pervasive among the chain’s employees. When I spoke to David Williams, another Dollar General worker, last year, he described drinking two bottles of Powerade and a large bottle of water during his shift to ward off dehydration and heat strokes at his store in New Orleans.
“One of the stores in my district was shut down because it didn’t have any running water,” she says, adding that it took Dollar General a week to close the store. “They put a Porta Potty in the backyard and expected the employees to use that. These executives get to control the air conditioning at their offices, and they definitely don’t have to use a Porta Potty.”
Slaughter was speaking to me by phone from a bus heading to Goodlettsville, Tennessee, where Dollar General is headquartered. The company’s annual shareholder meeting took place on May 31. Dollar General workers, joined by labor organizations such as United for Respect, the Union of Southern Service Workers, and Step Up Louisiana, protested outside the gathering. Slaughter recently left her job at Dollar General to work for Step Up Louisiana.
Her low starting pay at Dollar General isn’t unusual. Williams started at $8 an hour, and a 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute found that 92 percent of the company’s employees made less than $15 an hour; 22 percent made less than $10 an hour. The company is currently the United States’ fastest-growing retailer, opening around one thousand stores a year and employing more than 170,000 people.
When I asked Slaughter how much she feels Dollar General workers should be paid, she said $25 an hour; at the very least, she said, workers deserve $15. After all, she added, they aren’t just cashiers: with the company’s systematic understaffing of stores, they are janitors, security guards, and managers too.
Alleged low pay and inadequate safety and health measures at stores are the issues that led Dollar General workers to convene in Goodlettsville, just as they did last year. Their demands include safe staffing, paid time off after exposure to workplace hazards such as the frequent robberies at the dollar-store chain, and worker input on all new safety practices. As Slaughter wrote in a 2020 op-ed for the New York Times, “I’m afraid we’ll become more of a target for robberies because everyone knows we don’t have any security and people are getting desperate.” According to CNN, forty-nine people have been killed at Dollar General stores since 2014.
Inside the shareholder meeting, Williams presented a proposal on behalf of a Domini equity fund, calling for a third-party audit on how Dollar General’s policies impact worker well-being.
“This company has expanded so fast, and so recklessly, that on any given day, I might have to deal with a rat infestation, a door that won’t lock, or someone pointing a gun at me with no security to protect me,” said Williams while speaking in favor of the proposal.
Similar proposals in prior years had been defeated, but this year, shareholders approved the nonbinding resolution despite the company’s board of directors’ recommendation that it be rejected, calling it “unnecessary.”
That change is thanks to the efforts of Slaughter, Williams, and other Dollar General employees, which come at the same time as a wave of fines levied against the megacorporation by the US Department of Labor. Dollar General is currently on the list of “severe violators” compiled by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), which has levied more than $21 million in proposed fines against the company since 2017.
“Dollar General continues to expose its employees to unsafe conditions at its stores across the nation,” said assistant secretary for Occupational Health and Safety Doug Parker in a statement last month.
Efforts by workers to unionize the company’s stores in response to rampant mistreatment have thus far been defeated by the company. In 2020, Dollar General shut down a Missouri store that voted to unionize. In 2021, they retained anti-union law firm Labor Relations Institute, paying consultants $2,700 per day to defeat a union drive at a Connecticut location.
When I asked Slaughter about Dollar General’s negligence regarding worker health and safety, she argued that the key is an unwillingness to safely staff stores and grant workers their preferred number of hours, as both would affect the company’s bottom line. At times, the stores are staffed by only one employee, which leaves them not only unable to keep shelves stocked and customer lines moving, but leaves them vulnerable to violence and robberies too.
“What I need them to realize is that it doesn’t even take sixty seconds for someone to have a heart attack or for someone to get a gun pulled on them,” says Slaughter, who supports demands that Dollar General limit the amount of cash kept at stores and design store layout and infrastructure to prioritize safety. “You shouldn’t have to go to work and worry if you’re going to return home the same way that you arrived at work. The executives certainly don’t have to do that.”
“We’re not even talking about the irate or unwell customers, but about knives and guns being pulled on people while they’re at their place of work,” she adds. “No one should have to deal with that. I’m not a police officer. I’m not a paramedic. I’m not SWAT. I don’t work for the Secret Service. I shouldn’t have to feel like I need a bulletproof vest to go to work.”