The XX Factor

Thanksgiving Is Becoming Impossible for Low-Wage Working Women

People lining up to shop on Thanksgiving Day. 

Photo by Andrew Kelly/Getty Images

Black Friday has been poaching Thanksgiving itself, as demonstrated by this disturbing piece at Huffington Post showing how major retailers are opening earlier and earlier on the holiday. This, in turn, is increasing the amount of debate over whether employers should be allowed to steal the holiday from their low-wage service workers. “Increasingly, Thanksgiving is a holiday that only some can afford to celebrate,” Jillian Berman of Huffington Post writes. 

Having to skip the actual meal portion of the day so you can sell cheap TVs to bored shoppers trying to escape their families is already an indignity, but, as Josh Harkinson of Mother Jones reports, the pain is compounded by many who have bosses who don’t even bother to tell them they’re working Thanksgiving until right before the holiday. As Jodi Kantor reported this summer in the New York Times, fancy new scheduling software at big chain stores has created a situation where many employees don’t even know what hours they’re expected to work until the last minute. The software, which uses store traffic patterns, weather, and other variables to produce timely estimations of how many employees a store will need during any given shift, helps save companies money, but only by forcing low-wage workers to live the “on call” lifestyle, not knowing from one week to the next when they’re supposed to work. That mentality does not take a holiday for Thanksgiving, with many workers who had made travel or family plans being told at the last minute to drop those plans or get fired for not showing up to work, according to Harkinson’s reporting. Susan Lambert, a researcher at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, found that almost half of young retail workers get less than a week’s notice of what their schedules will be.

To illustrate how this problem is affecting retail workers, ThinkProgress focused on what’s going on with Kmart, which is opening at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving Day and staying open for 42 hours straight. “While the company says it tries to fill the slots with volunteers or seasonal hires,” Bryce Covert writes, the reality is that workers are being told to give up their family time at the last minute to sell gee-gaws, or they will lose their jobs. 

This is a deeply gendered issue, and not just because low-wage retail workers are disproportionately female. Holidays are a time when the domestic demands put on women escalate. While some families are more progressive, the fact remains that, in most families, women are expected to do almost all the cooking, cleaning, present-wrapping, decorating, and planning. A 2006 survey on holiday stress backed by the American Psychological Association found that 44 percent of women had increased stress around the holidays, compared with 31 percent of men. No big surprise why. Seventy percent of women expected to have to wash Thanksgiving dishes, compared with 41 percent of men. Sixty-six percent of women knew they had to cook, compared with 35 percent of men. Men only exceeded women when it came to one Thanksgiving task: 46 percent of men figured they’d spend some time watching football, while only 26 percent of women thought the same. Being forced to go to work on the holiday is not just a bummer for women; it’s doubly stressful because many will feel they don’t have time to attend to their holiday-driven domestic responsibilities. 

And it’s all for no good reason. As Heather Long at CNN Money reports, being open on Thanksgiving Day has no meaningful impact on yearly profits for retailers. Opening on Thanksgiving “merely shifts some shopping that would have been done on Black Friday to Thursday.” While profits on Thanksgiving Day itself go up when you open on that day—no duh—they do so at the expense of sales the rest of the weekend. “From 2012 to 2013, Black Friday sales shrunk by $1.5 billion while Thanksgiving Day sales grew by $1.8 billion, according to ShopperTrak,” Long writes. “That’s nearly a one-to-one tradeoff.” 

State Rep. Mike Foley is trying to attack this problem by pushing a bill in Ohio that would triple the minimum wage on Thanksgiving Day. It’s a brilliant idea, and not just because it increases the compensation for people who are dragged into work that day. Since there’s no increased profitability for being open on Thanksgiving, if employers have to pay more to make no more money, they might reconsider this ridiculous trend of forcing retail workers to work on what is supposed to be a national holiday.