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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Grocery workers were called heroes for months during the pandemic, with few actual protections. Now they’re finally seeing small but important gains.

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“I don’t think we’re considered essential because we’re not grocery or other necessary items,” one Ikea worker told Business Insider. “That’s been a point of contention here.”

  • Retail workers have been touted as frontline heroes throughout the pandemic, by companies and the public alike.
  • Protections for retail employees remain weak in the United States, and many workers and labor activists have called for companies to do more.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did recently vote to recommend that grocery workers receive priority vaccinations, however.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Early on in the coronavirus pandemic, it looked like retail workers might ascend to the role of societal “heroes,” taking on a designation usually reserved for military personnel, firefighters, and medical professionals in the United States.

Employees working on the frontlines of stores faced disease and death in order to keep the “open for business” signs blazing for consumers desperate to access essential goods. And it seemed like the public and private sector alike were beginning to appreciate that.

Major companies like Walmart and Amazon released advertisements touting their workers’ resoluteness and bravery in the face of COVID-19. Those same national retailers also began to dole out bonuses during the pandemic. Retail workers even got their own action figures. As part of its “everyday hero” line of dolls, Mattel released a toy grocery store employee. 

Fisher Price Little People #ThankYouHeroes2
Mattel’s Little People “everyday heroes” characters, including a doctor, nurse, emergency medical technician, delivery driver, and grocery store worker.

For many months, none of that adulation has resulted in much political headway for workers. In recent days, however, retail employees have seen a few key wins. 

As vaccine distribution has begun, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention panel voted last week to recommend that “frontline essential workers” should be next in line to receive the coronavirus vaccine after elderly individuals.

“For purposes of this recommendation, the following essential workers are considered frontline: fire fighters, police officers, corrections officers, food and agricultural workers, Postal Service workers, manufacturing workers, grocery store workers, public transit workers, those who work in the education sector (teachers, and support staff), as well as daycare workers,” according to the CDC recommendations. 

In Congress, there’s also been positive news for retail workers.

United States Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell had long pushed for a provision to the stimulus bill that would strip consumers and employees of the ability to bring coronavirus-related lawsuits against companies. Retailers who funded McConnell and lobbied legislators to protect companies in this election cycle include Walmart, CVS, Publix, as well as trade groups like the National Association of Chain Drug Stores and the National Grocers Association, according to previous Business Insider reporting. But ultimately that provision has been cut from the  relief package. That relief package is now in limbo as Trump is demanding an increase in direct payments from $600 to $2,000.

Remington Gregg, a lawyer for the consumer-rights group Public Citizen, said that the passage of the stimulus package without the liability proposal was a “major win for workers,” but the fact that it was up for debate at all is indicative of a system stacked against working Americans. 

The stimulus package also includes an extension of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which was initially due to expire on December 31. This act states that employees of covered employers can get up to two weeks of paid sick leave if “the employee is unable to work because the employee is quarantined (pursuant to Federal, State, or local government order or advice of a health care provider), and/or experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking a medical diagnosis” and up to an additional 10 weeks of paid expanded family and medical leave.

But there are loopholes in the Families First coverage. Employers with over 500 employees and those with less than 50 employees can find exemptions to the paid leave covered in this act. Meanwhile, many retail employers continue to foster risky environments.

A 2020 workplace safety survey from hazardous waste disposal compliance company Stericycle found that 24% of retail employers have not even implemented workplace training around COVID-19 safety. Meanwhile, a third of retail workers said they’d been asked to bring their own personal protective equipment to work. A sweep of local news outlets across the country reveals that retailers have come under fire for safety violations during the pandemic, with some even allegedly firing workers for reporting problems

Gregg said that it’s “all well and good” for companies to market off their workers’ heroics. “But I think those heroes would prefer to have paid sick leave, higher minimum wage, and actually have their employers treat them with dignity,” he said. 

And while pandemic bonuses may provide workers with more cash support during the pandemic, labor rights organizations like United for Respect say it’s too little too late. United for Respect calculated Walmart’s bonus amounts from the start of the pandemic and found that it came out to a raise of $0.71 per hour.

Walmart employee and United for Respect member Mendy Hughes said that her store fails to adequately enforce mask-wearing or stock hand sanitizer at checkout. 

A Walmart spokesperson told Business Insider that the company has required face coverings for all shoppers since July, and employees since April. The company also noted its next cash bonus would roll out on December 24, which would bring Walmart’s total 2020 quarterly and special cash bonuses for employees to more than $2.8 billion, the spokesperson said. 

Walmart also offers its own COVID emergency leave policy with paid time off for sickness or quarantine and the potential for additional “pay replacement” for up to 26 weeks. 

But leave policies are varied across the retail landscape. 

For example, at Costco, the big box employer has ramped up pay for its frontline workers but has not yet universally extended leave time. Business Insider previously reported that the company did quietly give some older employees two weeks of extra paid leave during the pandemic.

“The extra $2 per hour worked is nice, but I’d much rather have more personal and sick time,” a Minnesota Costco employee who asked to remain anonymous told Business Insider. 

Costco didn’t reply to Business Insider’s request for comment. 

“Sometimes a person needs a break from having members complain about items being in short supply, and beyond that the mental stress,” the employee said. “And what happens when we get a head cold and stay home ‘just in case’?”

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