Discount retailer Dollar General has grown into one of the most profitable chain of stores in the United States, with forecasted 2022 net sales of more than $27 billion. But critics say that the company’s phenomenal growth has come at a dangerous price: the safety and welfare of Dollar General workers.

After years of voicing their concerns to management — only to be ignored, silenced or fired — current and former Dollar General employees joined together with United for Respect, Step Up Louisiana and the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility (ICCR) for a rally at corporate headquarters in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, on May 25, during the company’s 2022 annual shareholders’ meeting.

Eager and hopeful that their voices would finally be heard, these workers traveled for nine hours by bus from Louisiana to attend the rally. As a long-term supporter of fair labor practices and human rights, United Church Funds (UCF) partnered with Step Up Louisiana to speak out at the meeting, only to have spokesperson and grassroots organizer Gabriel Bolden Shaw greeted with a closed door. Also locked out of the meeting was prominent minister and social justice activist, William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign. The company claimed that the lock-outs were due to these activists arriving four minutes late to the meeting.

UCF’s Director of Responsible Investing, Matthew Illian, who attended the meeting virtually, asked the Board whether the company considers the public’s growing concern over income inequality when setting wages for management and store employees. Dollar General’s CEO, Todd Vasos, was paid over $17 million in 2021, 986 times the median pay of an employee at the company. The response Illian received was a recitation of employee benefits and how CEO compensation is structured using peer comparisons, which gave the impression of Dollar General executives being out of touch with the lived experiences of most of their employees.

It All Started with a TikTok Video

Search Google for the phrase, “Dollar General workers’ safety,” and the result will be an extensive list of articles showing the company’s long reputation for cutting corners when it comes to employees’ welfare. But only recently has the issue gained national attention after Mary Gundel, a store manager at a Dollar General store in Tampa, Florida, shared her frustration on her TikTok channel this past March. Her video quickly went viral, and not long after Dollar General fired Gundel.

Gundel shared with The Progressive magazine that after she was terminated, the movement blew up and became its own entity, to the point where a great number of people started speaking out about their experiences at Dollar General. Former and current Dollar General employees shared their stories about “horrible working conditions,” citing low wages, the non-existence of a paid sick leave policy and lack of workers’ safety as primary concerns.

Mitchell Gilliam, a Dollar General worker in Marion, North Carolina, shared on Twitter: “It feels like Dollar General’s main strategy is to pay us as little as possible while getting the most work out of us. That’s why I’m working in an understaffed store, making poverty wages.”

The lack of staffing and the Dollar General business model of often setting up stores in low-income or isolated neighborhoods make the stores and staff particularly vulnerable to armed robbery. Business Insider reported that there were more than 420 incidents of crimes involving guns at dollar stores from the beginning of 2017 through October 2021, earning Dollar General stores the nickname, “crime hotspots.”

“Sometimes, we are left working alone in the store for hours, even at night,” said Ashley Sierra, another Dollar Store worker in Marion, North Carolina. “Our store gets no phone signal, no way to call for help if the store gets robbed. This store has been robbed three times in nine years. Dollar General keeps us short-staffed to save money, and it’s dangerous for us.”

A spokesperson for Dollar General said that the company has a series of safety and security protocols to protect workers and shoppers but refused to elaborate on these safety measures. 

Putting Front-line Staff at Risks

While many notable retailers struggled or even had to close their doors when the pandemic hit, Dollar General thrived, benefiting from higher demand for cheaper groceries and household items during the Coronavirus-induced economic downturn. But the company came under fire for putting their front-line staff at high risk during the pandemic by inadequately equipping them with personal protective equipment and no paid sick leave.

Rebecca, a worker at a Dollar General store in South Carolina, recalled that employees were making their own hand sanitizer at the store, mixing aloe vera and alcohol. One day, Rebecca started to feel sick with a fever and had some difficulty breathing. She asked her boss if she could stay home and get paid somehow. In response, her boss told her to come into work or file for food stamps. “That’s the Dollar General way,” her manager said.

The Work Continues

“As a values-aligned investor, UCF believes that corporations have moral obligations to treat every employee with respect,” said Illian. “We support the Dollar General workers who are speaking up for living wages and safe work conditions. It’s not enough for Dollar General to simply say its people are its most valuable asset; it must act as if this is true.”

UCF will continue to support Dollar General workers in fighting for their rights and use our voice to create a positive and sustainable change in the ways corporations operate.

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