“It was time for Alex and Bella to head back home for the holidays — the best place to celebrate in the galaxy and certainly the best place on Earth.”
That heartwarming line runs across the last of Macy’s Herald Square’s holiday windows telling the story of a boy’s Christmas adventure traveling through the galaxy. Unfortunately, many Macy’s employees won’t share little Alex’s home-for-the-holidays happiness, at least not tomorrow. They won’t be home for the Thanksgiving holiday. They’ll be at work.
They won’t be alone. Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, Old Navy, Kohl’s, Target, Kmart, Sears, Wal-Mart, H&M, Gap, Zara, Victoria’s Secret and Sephora are among those retailers opening at least some doors for all or part of Thanksgiving Day. Some will open bright and early in the morning, dispensing with any pretense of holiday consideration; others, late afternoon, affording their employees the opportunity to eat and run. Some of those in the latter camp are running television ads inviting customers to start Black Friday early, at 5 or 6 p.m. on Thursday, tactfully using the day of the week instead of “Thanksgiving.”
When did this happen? When did an entire sector of the U.S. workforce become ineligible to expect something that most of us take for granted: the occasional paid holiday? Why has Thanksgiving-as-shopping-op become ubiquitous with so little noticeable dissent?
Obviously, there’s a basic principle of supply and demand at play, a commercial perversion of the quote from “Field of Dreams”: If you open, they will come. And in recent years, come they have, leading more and more retailers to build yet another shopping day into the year. What is it for most stores — the 364th? Is the extra day that necessary to remain competitive? Not all stores do it. How do the holdouts survive and flourish? Invariably, p.r. speak from those who open their holiday doors cites the customer-first rule, and often, that such shifts are voluntary and attractive to those who appreciate the holiday-rate pay.
Really? Have these retailers put the matter to an anonymous employee vote?
Even if all arguments rang true, is it right for those who work retail to be treated differently than almost everyone else in the private sector? While time-and-a-half definitely has its appeal, common sense and our own lives tell us that so, too, does the notion of once in a great while getting paid to do nothing.
Yes, essential services must be maintained — different story. And entertainment and social venues are open on holidays — Broadway theaters, restaurants, private dining clubs. But that feels different, as workers in those areas at least toil in the service of others’ holiday enjoyment. For all its inherent joys, shopping doesn’t carry the same festive relief, especially while trampling the woman next to you for that 70-percent-off minaudière. A lame argument, perhaps. But there’s an old saying that perfect shouldn’t be the enemy of good.
For retail workers in particular, to work on Thanksgiving is awful. Over the next month, few other workers will work harder, clocking if not more hours (overtime voluntary!), than more bizarre ones (the midnight shifts). And no one will have to smile through more episodes of often-atrocious customer behavior. Volunteerism be damned. The fact that sales associates and others who facilitate the retail customer’s experience cannot reap the benefits of one day of forced family enjoyment — or rest, or just hanging out — is appalling.
This doesn’t happen in any other employment arena in the U.S. Can you imagine if office workers were told that since phones will be quiet, Thursday afternoon will be a great time to discuss strategy? Streamline files? Organize the fashion closet? If teachers were scheduled for afternoon in-school tutoring sessions? If dental hygienists had to check in for some cleaning and polishing?
This isn’t a j’accuse. I wonder why as a society we deem it OK? It seems to me that those who work in ground-floor retail, who deal with customers day in and day out, are perceived as separate and apart from the rest of the workforce, that they’re shown a lack of respect from both employer and consumer. Presidents’ Day, July Fourth, Labor Day (when we’re salivating over sales, do we even consider the irony?) have become shopping bacchanals.
I tried to get perspective on this, on whether stores and consumers are justified in demanding near-365-day brick-and-mortar shopping. If yes, why, and what does it say about us as a society that we either haven’t considered or don’t care how it impacts those charged with servicing our acquisitive, price-conscious lust? (Those holiday “deals” are the irresistible bait.)
Kate Bronfenbrenner, PhD, director of labor education research at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, put it this way: “In this society, it seems that when people offer sales, people show up. And how they act — the anger level and anxiety level — people aren’t just shopping, they’re shopping with vengeance.”
Even minus shoppers’ wrath, Bronfenbrenner worries about the impact on families, especially since so many retail employees are single mothers. “There’s a ripple effect with women workers,” she said. “Women are told, ‘You need to work holidays and you need to work these wee-hour shifts.’ So children are going to be alone, and elderly, who are dependent on these women, are left uncared for.”
Bronfenbrenner pointed out that even when such work is not mandatory, people might feel compelled to volunteer, fearful that without the extended hours, their employers won’t stay competitive and their jobs could be in jeopardy.
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, noted that at Macy’s Herald Square and other union outposts, a contract regulates the approach to holiday shifts. He voiced concern for non-union workers. “The only people who should be working on Thanksgiving are those who choose to do so voluntarily and are compensated appropriately,” Appelbaum said.
I assume workers are being paid fairly, not only at union doors but at Lord & Taylor and other non-union stores. But should stores be open on Thanksgiving in the first place? “I’m not responding to that,” Appelbaum said. “I’m not going to make a determination for society whether or not we want retailers to be open. I am going to say, if they are open, this is the way they have to do it.”
If the head of the union won’t voice an opinion, who will? I spent Monday afternoon at Macy’s and Lord & Taylor, asking employees on the floor what they think of their stores being open on Thanksgiving. I spoke with more than 35 people, mostly sales associates, but some stock and maintenance people as well. A proper scientific sample? No, but still illuminating. I chose those specific retailers not to pick on them, but for two reasons: First, their crossover to Thanksgiving hours played like a sea change when it only happened over the past couple of years. Macy’s will open two hours earlier this year than last, and Lord & Taylor invites shoppers in from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. More importantly, I wanted to ensure the employees complete anonymity. (Hence, the direct quotes below reference no particulars other than the speaker’s gender and, when relevant, approximate age.)
Most, though not all, opinions shared came from Macy’s (I’ll get to that). Some people spoke dispassionately and intelligently about consumer demand and competitive practices. Virtually no one said, “I think it’s great that my store is open on Thanksgiving,” though several noted that overtime can be enticing. The most enthusiastic endorsement came from a young man who said, “I’m not against it. I think Thanksgiving is not necessarily an important holiday for the store to be closed.”
That lukewarm endorsement aside, the prevailing attitude was that stores should be closed on Thanksgiving, though employees are resigned, a feeling expressed at times with wistfulness and, less often, with disgust.
• “It’s the times we live in. I don’t think it’s going to get any better.”
• “It’s just about money…After the Thanksgiving Day Parade is over, it’s back to business because there’s so much competition.”
• “These are new times. The city is fast. Lots of tourists. It’s about making money. Once one store did it, they were all going to do it.”
Employees stressed that working on Thanksgiving Day is optional. And even with the appeal of overtime pay, of those I spoke with, only three full-time employees had signed up, the majority opting for home and turkey. My first Macy’s conversation was with an older, elegant man, who said the opinion is generational, that the older people (read: long-term, union employees) are “not with it at all,” but the younger ones “are mostly seasonal and do OK with time-and-a-half,” happy for the money for bills and school. Given that framework, I looked for people of different ages. Among employees who looked middle-aged or older, most were appalled at the thought of working on Thanksgiving and declined to take a shift.
• “Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family.”
• “You should respect the holiday, no?”
• “I don’t work on that kind of day. I have family, kids.”
• “I don’t think anything should be opened on Thanksgiving. You should be with your family.”
• “We hardly have any holidays to begin with — Thanksgiving, Christmas Day, Easter. Now we’re opening at 6 o’clock.”
The youth vote wasn’t as one-sided as my first interview subject suggested. It turned out, plenty of young people appreciated family time. Several I spoke with are seasonal and took their jobs knowing the likelihood of working Thanksgiving was strong. Still, many noted that they’d prefer not to work. One young man thanked me for doing the story. “It’s important. Thanksgiving is for families. I’m going to have to jump up from the table and come to work.” A 20-year-old waxed nostalgic: “Back in the day, Thanksgiving was about family. Now, it’s different.”
At Macy’s, only a few people declined to engage. Among those who did, I sensed zero fear factor. Lord & Taylor presented a different vibe, one guarded to the point of defensive. The difference may lie in Appelbaum’s point about union versus non-union, and perhaps, in the concrete differences between the stores. Macy’s is huge, crowded and more suited to covert conversation.
I spoke with only nine people, almost all of whom started by saying they’re not allowed to speak to the press. Some then spoke to the press, each offering the same disclaimer, that working Thanksgiving is purely voluntary. One woman, a believer in the traditional notion of holidays, asked that I not compromise her. Another proposed that working the holiday might be a nice option for employees who might otherwise be alone and sad on Thanksgiving. (She’s not among them; she’ll be dining with the in-laws.) One woman, a seemingly delightful, big-personality type, followed the “no-press” recitation with “Happy holidays and God bless you.”
She may or may not have reported me to security. Soon after our pleasant, 30-second nonconversation, a good-looking young man, more stern than the situation warranted, approached me. He knew what I was up to, and said that if I didn’t leave, he’d escort me out of the store.
I left without buying anything, party line included.
Working or not, Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.