Dollar General at center of labor unrest controversy after frustrated workers walk off job in Maine citing low wages and understaffed stores

dollar general maine
  • Dollar General employees quit in protest over understaffing and low pay at a store in Eliot, Maine.
  • “They figured that they had me trapped in a job that I couldn’t get out of. To some degree they were right,” one worker told Insider.
  • The walkout at the Dollar General follows much labor unrest in the state in recent months.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Berndt Erikson worked as the nightly closer and key-holder at a Dollar General in the small town of Eliot, Maine. After every shift, he’d count up the money generated by the store and clean up before heading out.

But when he closed up shop on May 3, he knew he wouldn’t be going back.

Erikson and his fellow employees walked out of the store that day, leaving signs on the windows highlighting what they say were unacceptable working conditions at the retailer.

He said that understaffing, low wages, and frustration over a lack of communication from the company’s district management ultimately led to his decision to move on. In total, two employees and a manager quit the store, leaving one sole staffer remaining.

“Out of respect for these individuals, as well as the value we place on open and direct communication with our employees, we do not plan to comment on their employment status further,” Dollar General told local news station WMTW in a statement. “Our Eliot store remains open to provide the York County community with convenient, affordable access to everyday essentials.”

The company did not immediately return Insider’s request for comment.

Erikson had started at the Maine Dollar General in January 2020, after getting laid off from a local Super Shoes store. But very quickly, he said, the Dollar General began hemorrhaging workers. Pay for workers stayed around $13 an hour on average, which Erikson says was not a living wage in that part of Maine.

“People started to try to find better jobs, or they just had enough of being worked to death and being disrespected by both corporate and customers,” he told Insider. “We were already understaffed the entire time I had worked there, but it got to a point where we were not able to keep up.”

Keeping lean store staffs is a part of Dollar General’s business model, and one of the reasons the chain has been able to expand its footprint at such a rapid rate. In 1992, the company operated 1,522 stores in the US. As of February 26, 2021, Dollar General has a fleet of 17,266 stores across 46 states.

However, critics say that having so few employees to man the stores creates an unsafe environment, leaving workers as targets for robberies and violence. In Erikson’s case, he said that anti-maskers and anti-vax customers often screamed at employees, adding further tension to an already-difficult work environment. Meanwhile, requests by store managers that he receive a raise for his work were often ignored.

“They figured that they had me trapped in a job that I couldn’t get out of. To some degree, they were right,” he said.

But eventually, Erikson said, he decided that it would be better to seek out work with a different employer. And he’s not alone. As the coronavirus pandemic winds down, many business owners have complained about a tightening labor market, with employees quitting their minimum wage jobs to seek higher-paying roles.

The day before Erikson quit, the store manager left. He later called the acting district manager numerous times to say that he couldn’t man the entire store from opening to closing, but never heard back. Fed up, he and his coworker wrote up the signs – even including a special message to Joe, a beloved regular customer who’d often buy them sodas – and locked up the place at 4 p.m. that day.

The store opened back up the next day, with assistance from the acting district manager.

“The Dollar General walk-out in Eliot is yet another example of service sector realizing the true value of their labor after suffering with low wages, poor treatment and lousy working conditions,” Maine’s AFL-CIO union communications director Andy O’Brien said in a statement to Insider. “While business owners are constantly whining and complaining about how they can’t find enough people to work for them, they still refuse to pay living wages to attract employees and the workers are fighting back.”

O’Brien added that, in the case of Dollar General, workers say the company expects in-store salaried employees work 70 to 80 hours a week. O’Brien said that a bill in the Maine legislature could make most salaried employees earning up to $55,000 a year eligible for overtime pay, which would “prevent the kind of blatant exploitation of salaried employees that Dollar General continues to get away with.”

The walkout at the Dollar General in Eliot isn’t the only flicker of labor unrest to occur in the state in recent months. According to O’Brien, “the pandemic and the sacrifices frontline workers have had to make” have sparked a recent victory for striking shipyard workers, an ongoing strike by delivery drivers and mechanics, and successful union drives among nurses and museum workers in the state.

“When working people win, other workers become inspired and that’s why we’re seeing more of these kinds of wild cat strikes and walk outs,” O’Brien said. “It’s an exciting time to be alive.”

Erikson told Insider that he’s well aware that he may be retaliated against, or black-balled from future retail jobs. But he said he’s glad that his story has resonated with frustrated retail workers around the country, based on the reaction on social media. He also said that, in a way, his experience at Dollar General has helped bolster his self-esteem.

“I eventually got fed up with it and started to see my own self worth,” he said. “I actually gained the confidence to fight back, which is probably what led to me leaving in style. So thank you, Dollar General.”

Are you a Dollar General employee or a retail worker with a story to share? Email acain@insider.com.

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