Employees Forced to Work on Thanksgiving Day or Face Being Fired

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© Martin Parr/Magnum Photos

Tyler Barton, 24, is university student and a manager at a national discount retailer in Oklahoma. He won’t give away more details of his employment because of a non-disclosure agreement he signed when first joining the company. But he will say that he’s less than thrilled with having to work on Thanksgiving. “I’m disappointed about it, sure,” he says. “This is a holiday that I spend with my family. Customers forget that we have families, too.”

Barton, unlike many retail workers scheduled to clock in on November 27, will not be paid overtime for his services. “I don’t receive any extra incentive.” However, he doesn’t necessarily blame his employer for staying open. He says that last year, sales were so good on Thanksgiving that it made up for a lagging season. “I understand the necessity of someone having to work that day, I just wish it wasn’t me.”

But Tyler only represents one corner of the argument. America’s retail workers seem to be all over the place regarding whether or not it’s okay to be open on Thanksgiving. This year, most major chains have extended their hours to include Thanksgiving Day, making the Black-Friday midnight rush a relic of the past. Walmart will open at 6pm its first “doorbuster sales,” which include Frozen-themed pajamas for less than $5, a 15-piece Rachael Ray cookware set for $89, a fancy Dyson vacuum that’s $199—$150 off the original price—and a Playstation 4 that comes with “Grand Theft Auto V” and “The Last of Us” games for $399. 

The funny thing is, Walmart has been open on Thanksgiving since 1988. But this year, more of its competitors have joined in on the, ahem, festivities, which has brought more attention to the issue. For instance, Kmart is opening at a shocking 6am on Thanksgiving morning. While Kmart’s official statement is that its “stores do their very best to staff with seasonal associates and those who volunteer to work holidays,” employees have anonymously claimed otherwise. According to a report obtained by Thinkprogress.org, some say that their superiors have threatened to fire anyone who does not show up on Thanksgiving. Many Starbucks locations will also be open. Macy’s, Sears, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s, Best Buy and Target are getting in on the action, too. And for what? To make money, of course. Holiday sales will increase by 4.1 percent to $616.9 billion in 2014, forecasts the National Retail Federation. That’s good. But an increasing number of those sales will be online, and not at the mass-market stores we’ve mentioned. To hit their numbers, retailers need to be open as often as possible, and to offer as many incentives to get people in the doors as they can. 

That leaves employees in the lurch. While many holiday workers are hesitant to go on the record about their experiences because they fear that they might be fired for speaking out, plenty are opening up about it on social media and through petitions. “Employees understand that they have to work hours on holidays. However, Kmart’s unnecessary hours are forcing its employees to miss out on important time with their families,” wrote petition leader Jillian Fisher on Coworker.org. (Fisher’s mom works at Kmart.) “Welp, working on Thanksgiving night,” said @Th0masTheSquare on Twitter. “The only thing I looked forward in every year is for thanksgiving and to find out that I have to work on thanksgiving.. [sic] It breaks my heart,” confessed @aicnamycats, also on Twitter. 

It is indeed disheartening to think of someone being forced to work on the one day of the year that’s not supposed to be about buying stuff. There are no presents on Thanksgiving, just food, family and friends. But for those who are employed by movie theaters, hospitals, and hotels, working on this national holiday has been a tradition long before anyone noticed. Angela, a 27-year-old labor and delivery nurse at a large hospital in St. Louis, says she doesn’t mind working because she loves her job and co-workers. “Delivery babies is fun and rewarding. Plus, I work nights so I can see some family during the day after I wake up,” she says. “I think when you enjoy going to work you don’t mind it too much. Even when it is a holiday.”

For people like Angela, working on a holiday makes sense. (After all, a baby is not going to wait until Black Friday to be born.) But who really needs to shop before—or after—the turkey is carved? If America really wants retail stores to shut down on this most sacred of national holidays, customers are going to have to put away their wallets for 24 hours.