IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Holiday crowds are good for business — but not for retail workers

“The deals are enticing, but this is life and death for a lot of people,” one retail worker said. “Having the luxury to go shopping on Black Friday is great when it’s not a pandemic. When it is, it’s important to think about people other than yourself.”
Shoppers move about in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., on June 29, 2020.Seth Wenig / AP file

This year’s holiday shopping season is expected to bring in record sales — forcing many retail workers to the front lines of the pandemic, often without hazard pay, despite another surge of coronavirus infections.

“Retail workers experience heightened stress and pressure during the holiday season, even in normal times. However, this year, that stress is exponentially increased because of the serious health and safety risks resulting from the pandemic,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement.

“Workers are in public-facing jobs; and they interact with larger numbers of customers during the holiday season, risking their own exposure to Covid-19 as well as possibly bringing it home to their families," he said.

Around 190 million people shopped over Black Friday and Cyber Monday weekend last year, according to the National Retail Federation. While that number is expected to be down by 43 percent this year, that still means millions of people will trek to a store out of tradition or to nab a deal.

“Some things have not changed, such as the staying power of branded moments like Black Friday. We expect record buying through Thanksgiving weekend. Shoppers have been conditioned to expect deals and save money, and retailers will meet the call,”  Taylor Schreiner, director of Adobe Digital Insights retail analytics, said Tuesday.

While this might come as good news for brick-and-mortar stores that have been crushed by the pandemic, retail workers are nervous about the potential onslaught of eager shoppers — many of whom don’t always follow social distancing and mask rules.

Alyssa Kinchen, an associate at a Victoria’s Secret outlet store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, is scheduled to work 5 a.m. through 2 p.m. Black Friday. The company is limiting capacity to 75 people at a time, but she said customers often don’t keep their masks on, which adds to her fear that she could contract the virus and pass it to her grandparents.

“I have no idea how busy it’s going to be,” she told NBC News. “I might get [the virus] but I’m worried no one [shopping at the store] cares.”

L Brands, the parent company of Victoria's Secret, did not respond to a request for comment.

While the pandemic has crushed some retailers, it has lifted others. From Walmart to Target, the country’s top retailers have earned an additional $16.9 billion in profit on average this year from last year as stock prices soared upwards by 33 percent, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. But among those companies, workers received an average increase in pay of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began.

In spring, at the height of the coronavirus crisis, retailers rolled out "hazard pay" to store employees who worked through the pandemic. However, many of those companies have since discontinued that pay — even as their stock prices soared.

Kroger initially gave workers a $2 per hour raise, but later adjusted its hazard pay program to a one-time pay bonus and two separate awards of $100 in store credit. Yet, in September, the grocery chain bought $1 billion worth of its own stock in a share buyback, which companies tend to do when they have cash on hand while the stock market is strong.

"We continue to listen to our associates and take steps to ensure their safety and well-being," the company said in a statement.

Amazon also cut back on its $2 an hour hazard pay at its warehouses and fulfillment centers, despite seeing its shares soar by nearly 100 percent since the pandemic hit.

Amazon did not return a request for comment.

Walmart chose not to offer hazard pay but instead twice issued a cash bonus to associates — an amount that some workers said is not enough to cover the risk they take to keep stores running.

“It should be an hourly raise for the duration of the pandemic,” one Walmart associate told the Brookings Institution. “For a lot of these people working out there, four or five days a week, eight hours a day, risking their lives so much, given how the virus is spreading in the country, $2 to $3 extra an hour is a start. I don’t know it is the answer, but it is a lot better than what we are getting now.”

In September, as sales soared and shares hit record highs, the company spent $500 million repurchasing its own stock.

Walmart did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“They’re putting profit over people and not prioritizing our safety,” Melissa Love, a Walmart associate in Long Beach, California, said.

Organizations including United for Respect, a nonprofit labor group, have called on retailers including Amazon, Walmart and Petco to pay an extra $5 an hour to employees through the pandemic. Love, who is scheduled to work Black Friday, said this additional pay could go a long way with workers who are stocking aisles and working at the cash registers in packed stores during the busy holiday season.

“You have a lot of people crowding in the store now,” she said. “They’re not worried about safety.”

Many retail workers say they have no choice but to risk getting sick. One full-time worker at a PetSmart in Fort Wayne, Indiana, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, said he's worried about working Black Friday morning and he’s not receiving hazard pay.

“Having the luxury to go shopping on Black Friday is great when it’s not a pandemic," he said. "When it is, it’s important to think about people other than yourself.”

PetSmart said it has paid more than $30 million in "thank-you bonuses" to workers, as well as health care premiums and benefits. It said it also invested $1 million in a company fund to support workers facing personal or financial hardships. But these investments do not amount to pay.

The PetSmart employee said that he is unable to keep afloat on $11 an hour. He lives with his brother and sister-in-law and they all pool finances to cover their expenses.

“The [Black Friday] deals are enticing," he said. "But this is life and death for a lot of people."