The mystifying rise of GameStop’s stock has enthralled the general public, which has eagerly followed the story of a bunch of rambunctious Reddit investors collectively squeezing institutional hedge funds with short positions. Shares in the struggling video-game retailer skyrocketed up more than 400 percent this week (before tumbling Thursday morning), a surge that was driven largely by enthusiasm from users of the subreddit WallStreetBets, which bills itself as “like 4chan found a Bloomberg Terminal.” As confounding as this story has been for most of us, it made me wonder: What’s it been like for the retail employees who actually work at GameStop?
I spoke to five of them on Wednesday, when the stock was still soaring to historic heights. “Company stock is increasing in value, but from how they’re treating us, you’d think GameStop is next to broke,” a senior “guest advisor” who has worked at a GameStop in Oklahoma for three years told me. She said she’d buy GameStop stock if she could, because it’d likely make her more money than what she’s earning from her current salary. (Senior guest advisors typically make about $10 per hour at most locations.) “Honestly, the thing that matters most to me is that I still have a job and can keep a roof over my head and food on the table,” said an assistant store leader who’s been working at a Pennsylvania GameStop for about four years. “Even more money going the company’s way will just make our CEO more money. None of that trickles down to us.” (All the employees I interviewed for this article asked they not be named for fear of retribution.)
The GameStop workers I spoke to described a company that offers little support to its shops and is on the precipice of laying more of them off (the company closed more than 460 stores in 2020). None saw any way that the rising shares would alleviate chronic issues like the insufficient stocking of products, overworked employees, and low pay. They say there are also critical flaws in the chain’s approach to coronavirus protections, such as lax enforcement of social distancing and no hazard pay. Often one or two employees will often be responsible for all the scheduling, hiring, cleaning, marketing, merchandising, and COVID-19 safety protocols, but their wages remain uncompetitive. An assistant store leader who’s been working for GameStop for five years in Ohio said that store leaders usually make about $15 per hour, while assistant store leaders make $12.50. At the same time, he’s been applying to jobs at larger retailers that pay $13 to shelf-stockers.
If anything, shop-level employees are concerned that the GameStop’s whirlwind rally will convince the company to give them even less support. Some of the momentum behind the stock comes from Redditors believing that Ryan Cohen, a well-known investor and former CEO of the e-commerce pet supplies company Chewy who joined GameStop’s board of directors in November, will successfully reorient the business around online sales rather than its brick-and-mortar shops. (It’s likely that more of the retail investors are well-aware that they’re helping to overvalue GameStop stock.) Some employees expressed concerned that these retail GameStop investors are essentially rooting for the company to close down their locations. “I don’t really think having Cohen on our board will change much of anything,” said the Pennsylvania assistant store leader. “If anything, it simply means we’ll lose our jobs faster, because he wants to close the majority of our stores.” An assistant store leader who has been working at GameStop for five years in Oklahoma said that her store leader was initially optimistic that the rising stock “meant good things for us,” and she hoped that it would lead to unfreezing raises, but then everyone at the store started to worry upon discovering why investors were excited about the company.
Employees say they’ve heard very little from management about the stock, except for a warning not to talk to the press on Wednesday and a reminder about the company’s insider trading policies last week. Here’s a screenshot one shared with me:
The assistant store leader in Oklahoma told me that she was confused by the insider-trading memo and took it as a sign that perhaps the company didn’t want them buying any of the stock. “I’m not really 100 percent sure why they sent that out though, as most store-level employees have the same information as the general public,” she said. “They really don’t tell us much, other than when people come and go from the board of directors.” The assistant store leader in Ohio also mentioned that the district manager tried to spin the stock rising as a positive for employees on a conference call, but he was skeptical about the pitch. “I see no way it trickles down,” he said. “The upper management is so disconnected from the store levels that they have no idea how to support us.” (GameStop did not respond Thursday to my questions about the insider-trading memo or the working conditions.)
The employees gave varying reports about how business has been going at their locations. The Oklahoma assistant store leader said that it’s been less busy during the pandemic, and that the store often doesn’t even have the hardware or game products that customers want in stock. The senior guest advisor, also in Oklahoma, said that business has actually been up at her location over the last year, since everyone is turning to video games during quarantine, but that she’s also run into the issue of not having enough product to stock the shelves. She noted, for example, that demand for Animal Crossing: New Horizons has outstripped the store’s supply.
While management hasn’t told them much, customers and investors have been eager to ask staff about the company’s unexpected stock market success. The Ohio assistant store leader said that staff at his location has been shutting down conversations about the stock for fear that it will be divisive “like politics or religion.” The Oklahoma senior guest advisor said that a random user asked her about the stock on Instagram after seeing she was an employee, and members of WallStreetBets had been encouraging GameStop employees to buy some of the stock themselves. (The moderators of r/GameStop, where employees discuss their work, have now banned posts about the stock.)
A couple of the employees say that they have had a little luck with the GameStop stock. The assistant store leader in Oklahoma made about $55 after selling two shares she bought a year and a half ago, while the assistant store leader in Ohio says he doubled his investment this week. He also mentioned he knows of only one or two employees in his area who’ve actually bought shares of the company; the rest are barely making ends meet on their salaries and don’t have the extra cash to invest. The senior guest advisor in Oklahoma similarly said she’d consider investing if she didn’t have student loans to pay off.