Isabella Burrows, 19, started working at PetSmart in Michigan just before the Christmas shopping season in 2020. “It was one of the worst things I’ve had to go through. We didn’t have enough people to handle the crowds. We had three registers and there were lines around and outside the doors for how much traffic we had,” Burrows said.
This year, on Black Friday, Burrows works from 3pm to 11:30pm at a store an hour’s drive from where she lives. She was transferred from a nearest store in May after complaining to human resources that her manager downplayed and dismissed the tragic death of her 12-year-old brother two days after it happened.
Although she has several managers in her new store, she is still afraid to ask for anything from management as she struggles with the trauma of the incident at her previous store, lingering concerns about Covid-19 and braces for the influx of retail traffic and aggressive customers during Christmas shopping.
“It affects us just as much for everything that affects customers. We have no control over the prices in our stores or how much of a product we receive,” said Burrows, who is also a member of the United for Respect advocacy group. “I think people sometimes forget that: that we are people too.”
According to the National Retail Federation, retail sales in November and December are expected to increase by 8.5% to 10.5% – an all-time high – compared to 2020. And this despite ongoing supply chain problems, the decision of some retailers, including Walmart and Target, to close Thanksgiving, and employers’ continued struggles to find and retain enough employees.
“The week from Thanksgiving and Black Friday through Christmas is the worst time of year to work at Walmart, especially for cashiers and self-checkout hosts because of the sheer volume of customers pouring into the stores becoming volatile and angry about issues that arise. not in our control like merchandise they want is out of stock,” said Peter Naughton, a Walmart cashier and self-checkout host in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “We all deserve better and more respect, appreciation, better compensation and understanding that we are not robots but humans.”
An Amazon employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, described Amazon’s peak season, where employees have to work extra shifts to meet rising demand for Christmas shopping, as “hell”.
“The peak is hell,” said the worker. “Sometimes you don’t know your schedule until the day before and when you need HR for something waiting in line during your break. Most HR staff seem to have the same turnover rate as the rest of the building, so you’re constantly getting misinformation from HR.”
During peak season, their weekly shifts are increased from three 12-hour night shifts to five 11-hour shifts. Workers are losing a 15-minute break as the 12-hour shift is reduced to 11 a.m., the worker noted.
“They really keep an eye on the free time and supervisors walk around telling people what their rate is and telling them to be faster and work harder,” the employee said. Report an injury, and there will be many at peak, to AmCare [Amazon’s on-site health centers] usually not worth it because your manager has to be with you and you are interrogated by Safety, AmCare and management and the actual treatment is just typical Tylenol, an ice pack or a heating pack maybe a few stretches and back to work.”
Several worker protests in the US and abroad are planned for Black Friday this year as part of a Make Amazon Pay campaign to get Amazon to pay employees fairly, pay their taxes and pay for the environmental impacts of their supply chains.
Leisure travel is also expected to increase this year, with AAA forecasting a 13% increase in Thanksgiving holiday travel from last year, nearing recovery to pre-pandemic levels, and an expected 80% rebound in air travel. Deloitte predicts that leisure travel spending will be similar to pre-pandemic levels.
For low-paid essential workers in the retail and travel industries, peak demand during the holiday season offers employers an opportunity to increase wages and benefits and improve working conditions after what these workers have sacrificed during the pandemic.
Across the US, airport workers have staged strikes and protests to demand wage increases, improved working conditions and benefits in Tampa, Florida; Orlando, Florida; Houston; Denver; and Phoenix.
On Nov. 18, indentured workers at Orlando International Airport staged a one-day strike for better pay as many workers receiving less than minimum wage are forced to rely on tips they often don’t get, while working severely understaffed.
Gate agent and wheelchair attendant Joseph Gourgue Sr, 61, earns just $9 an hour without any benefits or paid leave, at one of the busiest airports in the US. He has weathered the pandemic, even contracting Covid-19 earlier this year, and went without pay while in quarantine.
“They don’t pay us enough,” says Gourgue, who described his job as providing social work in addition to customer service for travelers. “Thousands and thousands of children come here with their parents to go to Disney World. I’m a grandpa. I would like to go to Disney World with my grandchildren, but I can’t because of the lack of pay and unpaid leave. I can’t even take time off in November or December.”
Houston airport workers protested for higher wages on Nov. 17.
Teresa McClatchie, an airport escalator guard for six years, worked through the pandemic, earning just $9 an hour before her salary was recently increased to $12 an hour.
She does not receive an affordable health care benefit and has continued to work through pain and swelling from a neck injury she sustained in a car accident.
“I had surgery on July 15. The following Monday I had to work. If I didn’t come to work, I’d be fired,” McClatchie said. “Making ends meet with wages is always a challenge because to get an apartment you have to earn at least two or three times the rent and you can’t do that with what we earn so we have to make two or three or four jobs to make that possible.”