Isabella Burrows, 19, started working at PetSmart in Michigan just ahead of the holiday shopping season in 2020. “It was one of the worst things I’ve had to work through. We didn’t have enough people to deal with those crowds. We had three registers and there were lines around and out the doors for how much traffic we had,” said Burrows.
This year, Burrows is scheduled to work from 3 to 11.30pm on Black Friday at a store one hour away from where she lives. She was transferred from a closer 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.
Though she has different managers at her new store, she still fears asking anything from management, while still grappling with the trauma from the incident at her previous store, ongoing worries about Covid-19, and bracing for the influx of store traffic and aggressive customers during the holiday shopping season.
“For everything that inconveniences customers, it affects us just as much. We don’t have control over prices in our stores or how much we receive of a product,” said Burrows, who is also a member of the advocacy group United for Respect. “I think that’s something people forget sometimes: that we’re people too.”
Retail sales in November and December are expected to increase between 8.5% and 10.5% – an all-time record – compared with 2020, according to the National Retail Federation. And this despite ongoing supply chain issues, the decision of some retailers including Walmart and Target, to close on Thanksgiving, and employers’ continued struggle to find and retain enough workers.
“The week of Thanksgiving and Black Friday into Christmas is the worst time of the year to work at Walmart, especially for cashiers and self-checkout hosts because of the sheer volume of customers who flood into the stores and become volatile and angry over issues not within our control, such as 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 human beings.”
An Amazon worker, who requested to remain anonymous, described Amazon’s peak season, where workers are scheduled to work extra shifts to meet the surge in demand from holiday shopping as “hell”.
“Peak is hell,” the worker said. “Sometimes you don’t know your schedule until the day before and when you need HR for something you wait in line during your break. Most of the HR staff seems to have as high of a turnover rate as the rest of the building so you’re constantly getting wrong information from HR.”
During peak season, their weekly shifts are increased from three 12-hour overnight shifts to five 11-hour shifts. Employees lose a 15-minute break from the 12-hour shift being reduced to 11 hours, the worker noted.
“They really monitor time off task and supervisors walk around telling people what their rate is and telling them they need to be faster and work harder,” the worker said. “Reporting an injury, and there will be many during peak, to AmCare [Amazon’s on-site health centers] usually isn’t worth it because your manager has to be with you and you’re questioned by Safety, AmCare and management and the actual treatment is just typically 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 push Amazon to pay workers fairly, pay their taxes, and pay for the environmental impacts of their supply chains.
Holiday travel is also expected to surge this year, with AAA predicting a 13% increase in Thanksgiving holiday travel over last year, nearly recovering to pre-pandemic levels, and an 80% projected rebound in air travel. Deloitte predicts holiday travel spending will be comparable with pre-pandemic levels.
For low-wage essential workers in the retail and travel industries, the spike in demand during the holidays provides an opportunity to push employers to raise wages, benefits, and improve working conditions after what these workers have sacrificed throughout the pandemic.
Across the US, airport workers have held strikes and protests demanding wage increases, improved working conditions and benefits in Tampa, Florida; Orlando, Florida; Houston; Denver; and Phoenix.
On 18 November, contract workers at Orlando international airport held a one-day strike for better pay, as many workers are paid less than minimum wage, forced to rely on tips that they often don’t receive, while working severely understaffed.
Gate agent and wheelchair attendant Joseph Gourgue Sr, 61, makes just $9 an hour without any benefits or paid time off, working at one of the busiest airports in the US. He has worked through the pandemic, even catching Covid-19 earlier this year, and went without pay while quarantining.
“They don’t pay us enough,” said Gourgue, who described his work as providing social work in addition to customer service for travelers. “Thousands and thousands of kids come here with their parents to go to Disney World. I’m a grandfather. I would love to bring my grandkids to Disney World, but because of the lack of wages and unpaid time off, that cannot happen. I can’t even take time off during November or December.”
Airport workers in Houston held a protest for higher pay on 17 November.
Teresa McClatchie, an escalator security guard at the airport for six years, worked through the pandemic making only $9 an hour before her pay was recently increased to $12 an hour.
She receives no affordable healthcare benefits, and has continued working through pain and swelling from a neck injury she incurred from a car accident.
“On July 15, I had surgery. The following Monday, I had to work. If I didn’t come in to work, I’d be terminated,” said McClatchie. “Making ends meet on the pay is always a challenge because to get an apartment, you have to make at least two or three times the rent and you can’t do that with what we make, so we have to do two or three or four jobs in order to make that happen.”