The dangers of Dollar General
Dollar General is one of the most successful retailers in the world. Last year, it recorded $37.8 billion in sales, up more than 10% over the prior year, and generated $3.3 billion in operating profit. Over the last five years, its stock has increased by more than 120%. Its current market capitalization is $46.7 billion.
Dollar General has found success by offering discount goods in rural towns and low-income areas that are often ignored by other major retailers. For many, it is one of the only convenient options to buy food, apparel, cleaning supplies, and other household items. Dollar General already operates over 18,000 stores and plans to open 1,050 more in 2023 — an average of nearly three new stores a day.
It is also an extraordinarily dangerous place to work.
Since 2017, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has issued $15 million in fines against Dollar General in connection with "180 inspections nationwide for numerous willful, repeat and serious workplace safety violations related to unsafe conditions."
Many of these violations relate to Dollar General's practice of staffing its stores with as few employees as possible. That means there frequently aren't enough employees to unload and stock merchandise. Goods pile up in aisles and in front of exits, creating unsafe conditions for workers and shoppers.
For example, an inspection report issued this month of one Ocala, Florida Dollar General location found a double exit door in the backroom obstructed by a rolltainer (a type of shipping container delivered to retail stores), a ladder, and garbage bags. In the store itself, multiple aisles were blocked by rolltainers and carts of merchandise. In its report, OSHA noted that Dollar General was cited for these same kinds of violations at other stores in March 2022, June 2021, June 2020, and July 2019. For these and other repeat violations at the Ocala store, including fire extinguishers that were improperly installed or inaccessible, OSHA proposed $710,974 in fines.
In February, a Dollar General store in Columbus, GA, was cited by OSHA for stacking merchandise on top of rolltainers, exposing employees to "struck-by hazards." Dollar General was cited for similar violations at other locations in March 2022 and January 2022. For these and several other issues at the Columbus store, OSHA proposed $221,001 in fines.
Why does Dollar General keep paying hundreds of thousands in fines for failing to correct safety issues that could be resolved by hiring a few more employees per store? Because the fines are completely immaterial for a company of Dollar General's size. The total fines imposed since 2017 are equivalent to 0.04% of Dollar General's sales in 2022.
OSHA has placed Dollar General in its "Severe Violator Enforcement Program," which allows the agency to inspect stores even in the absence of a complaint. But it's unlikely this will make a significant difference.
This is not OSHA's fault. They are limited by the law. OSHA can only charge "a company up to $15,600 per day for up to 30 days for failure to address an unsafe condition." Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University, said that Dollar General's apparent indifference to the fines shows that "the system needs to be strengthened."
But persistently unsafe working conditions are just one aspect of a broader legal and regulatory system that allows workers to be exploited. And Dollar General takes full advantage.
Living on $17,773 per year
Ninety-two percent of Dollar General’s workforce earn less than $15 an hour, according to a 2022 report from the Economic Policy Institute. The report also finds that 57% make less than $12 an hour; and 22% make less than $10 an hour. Among the 66 companies surveyed in the report, which includes the likes of McDonald’s and Walmart, Dollar General has “the highest proportion of workers making below $15 per hour.” Another report from 2020 found that out of 25 major U.S. retailers, Dollar General “pays employees the least at $9.68 an hour on average.”
In 2021, the median Dollar General employee earned $17,773 – roughly $5,000 more than the U.S. poverty level, as More Perfect Union points out. Former Dollar General CEO Todd Vasos, in comparison, made 935 times more than the median Dollar General employee, raking in over $16.5 million.
Throughout 2021, the company also spent $2.5 billion on stock buybacks for executives and shareholders. This spending is part of an ongoing trend: between Q2 2020 and Q3 2021, Dollar General “doubled the amount spent on share repurchases,” finds the Brookings Institution. Had these stock buybacks been redirected to workers, the company could have more than doubled its 2020 median pay.
These worker wages are by no means livable. In the United States, there is not a single place where an adult without children can meet their basic necessities with an hourly wage below $15. In 2020, the Government Accountability Office confirmed this reality. The watchdog group identified Dollar General as one of the top companies with workers on federal assistance. In Oklahoma, for example, Dollar General was among the top three companies with employees relying on Medicaid. In Arkansas, Dollar General was in the top three for SNAP recipients.
Dollar General, however, boasts that it offers “competitive wages and benefits.” At the same time, it tells investors that “federal, state and/or local minimum wage increases could have a material negative impact on our operating expenses.” Earlier this month, the company said that it plans to focus on increasing scheduled hours instead of raising wages. In response to poor working conditions, workers have been organizing for the last few years to demand higher wages and safer working conditions.
Accusations of wage theft
Dollar General has also been repeatedly accused of stealing wages from its employees. In January, two workers at a Dollar General store in Irmo, South Carolina, “went on strike for two days” to protest multiple problems with the company, including “mold,” “dangerous understaffing,” and “unpaid wages.” The workers also filed a complaint with the South Carolina Office of Wages and Child Labor, accusing the company of wage theft.
One of the workers, who started at $11 an hour, was allegedly offered a promotion a few weeks after she began working at the store, but says that her paychecks did not reflect the $0.75 raise she was promised for at least three months. According to Prism, “Dollar General has not yet reimbursed their stolen wages.” Other Dollar General employees have accused the company of requiring employees to clock out before they finish working.
In April 2022, Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the former Chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, wrote a letter to Vasos asking the company about its alleged labor violations, including wage theft. The letter states that, according to lawsuits and press reports, Dollar General additionally “misclassifies many of its workers as salaried store managers to avoid paying overtime.”
The letter accuses Dollar General of “expecting managers to cover [hours] without overtime, lunch breaks, or additional compensation.” The letter cites a 2014 settlement in which Dollar General “agreed to pay $8.3 million to compensate former store managers who should have received payment” for overtime hours, stating that “it is clear the unlawful practices continue[d]” even after that settlement.