’Tis the season to be exploited: retail workers face busy, stressful holidays

<span>Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA</span>
Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Millions of Americans are flocking to stores and malls across the US on Black Friday in an annual mass shopping spree that has become almost as traditional as the Thanksgiving dinner that precedes it.

But as throngs of shoppers kick off the holiday season of consumerism, there is a huge impact on retail and delivery workers who become busier than ever and face workplace pressures that can harm their health and safety.

Related: Walmart offers Thanksgiving workers measly discount in place of holiday pay

At Walmart, the largest retailer in the US, John Freeman, a Walmart associate in Dillon, South Carolina, for over four years, explained that every year starting around Thanksgiving through Christmas things start to get worse for workers. Their workloads increase significantly, attitudes of management and customers worsen, and work scheduling becomes more rigid, as workers get squeezed to prepare for sale events, for an influx of customers, keeping shelves stocked, and cleaning.

“Workloads are strenuous. You have all this stuff that has to go out and it’s just been piling on. We don’t have many people in the store where I work and we’re doing five jobs at a time, running registers, cleaning up for maintenance, doing work with freight, stocking shelves, it’s just a lot around this time of year,” said Freeman. “It has just been one rollercoaster after another and it messes not only with us physically, but also our mental state because we’re being abused by customers and management.”

Freeman noted Walmart associates don’t receive any holiday pay and ended quarterly MyShare bonuses last year, with their only perk being a one-time extra employee discount of 15% for working on Black Friday.

“I’ve just come to realize during the holidays at Walmart, I don’t matter, it’s about what everybody else wants,” he added. “They need to be a little bit more considerate of their employees and what they’re going through, not just make us feel like we’re in a circuit and we’re there to jump through hoops. Without us there to stock your shelves, assist your customers or maintain your store to keep it running, there would be no Walmart.”

According to a poll conducted by the National Retail Federation in September 2022, 45% of holiday shoppers say they are likely to shop on Black Friday this year. Holiday retail sales forecasts project increases between 6-8% in sales compared with 2021, as holiday retail sales have grown consistently every year since the 2008 economic recession.

At Amazon, the largest online retailer in the US, warehouse workers head into the company’s peak season, during which workers are expected to work mandatory overtime hours to handle the boom in online orders through the holidays kicked off by Black Friday and Cyber Monday sales.

An employee checks on a Christmas display at a Walmart store in Chicago, Illinois, in 2016.
An employee checks on a Christmas display at a Walmart store in Chicago, Illinois, in 2016. Photograph: Kamil Krzaczyński/Reuters

Daniel Olayiwola, a picker at Amazon in San Antonio, Texas, for five years and member leader with the nonprofit worker advocacy group United for Respect, said the mandatory extra overtime during peak season compounds issues workers have with productivity quotas, and fears of termination if they don’t have enough unpaid time off accrued to be able to take time off or turn down the mandatory overtime shifts.

Even after five years, Olayiwola said he still experiences the fear induced by write-ups and the constant risk of being fired.

“They will schedule you for an extra day and an extra hour every day, so instead of working a 40-hour week, you could be working 55 or 60 hours a week and you don’t have a choice. People don’t realize that they’re stuck in the situation until they realize it’s the end of the year, they don’t have unpaid time off and they have an emergency and really have to leave work but if they leave work, they’re going to lose their job and it’s just sad,” said Olayiwola.

He added: “The way they beat you down and the way they have you constantly looking over your shoulder because of the rates, the amount of idle time that you have to go to the bathroom, the time off task time, it has people stressed out, and people are really just trying to keep a job through the pandemic and through the inflation situation we have going on.”

During the holidays, Amazon hires thousands of temporary workers, with 150,000 seasonal employees hired by the company for the 2022 holidays. Olayiwola argued the influx of seasonal workers contributes to the hectic atmosphere during peak season, as many of them aren’t experienced or haven’t been trained well enough.

“You’re given a lot of this fake hype and fake excitement around peak season, when that is not the case at all,” he added. “People who work at Amazon during peak seasons are not having a good time. It’s very difficult for you to continue to add extra days and hours on people’s schedules, without any option of coming or not coming. They are literally offering us pizza parties, like we’re in elementary school.”