John Oliver took on the mismanagement and employee mistreatment of dollar stores on Last Week Tonight. Dollar stores, or retail outlets which sell inexpensive products usually for around a dollar, are dominated by two chains: Dollar General and Dollar Tree, which also owns Family Dollar. The companies collectively operate more than 35,000 dollar stores in the US – more than Walmart, Starbucks and McDonald’s combined, and for great profit; Dollar General made over $2bn in 2022, while Dollar Tree made $1.62bn.
Dollar stores usually operate in low-income areas, and are often the only food retailer in food deserts. As Dollar General’s chief executive, Todd Vasos, said of their business 2020: “We do very good in good times, and we do fabulous in bad times.”
“Right, it’s a store that tends to do better when its customers are doing worse, which isn’t something that really requires use of the word fabulous,” said Oliver. “Fabulous is best used to describe a quirky hat, or the cast of the Golden Bachelor, or the fact that Kim Cattrall made a million dollars to sit in the back of a car and not talk to Sarah Jessica Parker. But a company bragging about how it can profit off financial hardship? Not so much.”
Much has been said about how dollar stores prey on the poor, but Oliver intended Last Week Tonight to focus on how such stores are run, “because if you’ve ever set foot in one, you know they can look like a total disaster”.
Over pictures of stores overcrowded with unboxed products, Oliver described dollar stores as “less like functioning stores and more like American Ninja Warrior: Retail Edition”
“That chaos isn’t a one-off mistake or the fault of those stores’ employees,” he said. “It is the natural end product of how the companies behind these stores choose to operate them. And if you think it can be bad shopping at a dollar store, it is nothing compared to what it’s like working there.”
One of the ways dollar store companies squeeze margins, he explained, are through cutting labor costs. Oliver played a social media clip by one customer, showing a single woman working at a dollar store with dozens of unpacked boxes and customers. It’s excess work for little pay – the median compensation for a Dollar General employee is $18,000 a year; a report two years ago found that over 92% of its employees were making less than $15 an hour, which was a higher percentage than every other company surveyed.
All of which has led employees to issue cries for help on social media, including TikTok that “look like hostage videos”, said Oliver. “It sure seems like these companies do not care at all. It is hard to overstate the indifference these chains can show to their employees’ working conditions.” Distribution centers have repeated rat infestations; some employees have testified as to how they had no control over temperatures in the store, or worked without functioning heating or cooling systems.
“When you take all this together – the heat, the understaffing, the boxes everywhere meaning you can’t move around properly, it is pretty clear these places aren’t just unpleasant. They’re unsafe,” said Oliver. He pointed Dollar General’s spot on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s severe violators list, racking up $25m in proposed fines since 2017. Osha also found more than 400 violations in Dollar Tree stores and imposed more than $13.1m in fines. (Dollar Tree entered into a settlement with Osha and says it’s implementing new safety procedures and training although, as Oliver noted, they entered a similar settlement and made similar promises back in 2015, “so at best, they are a slow learner here”.)
Even worse, he added, dollar stores are easy targets for violence, and on several occasions, employees have been expected to immediately return to work after armed robberies. “An armed robbery is a traumatic event people need time to recover from,” Oliver said. “It’s not something you can just ignore, like a spam call or a broken lightbulb or any show on Apple TV.”
Oliver attributed consistent violent incidents at the stores to, in part, how they are organized. “Having so few people working there, with no security guard typically present, makes them an incredibly enticing target,” he said. Indeed, a former Dollar General employee who witnessed a co-worker die in her arms testified in a lawsuit that her store had no lights in the back of the building, cash registers without panic buttons, and that the sign announcing a remotely monitored security system was a sham. “At that point, they might as well have put up one of those inflatable floppy men holding a ‘Plunder me, babe!’ sign,” Oliver joked.
“At every turn, dollar stores seem to treat their workers with either stunning indifference or outright contempt,” he added “so much more attention needs to be paid to what workers have been saying, and for years now.”
Oliver pointed to the testimony of workers, such as those of Step Up Louisiana, who put forth a list of demands including safe staffing levels, safe store infrastructure and giving workers a right to heal after violent incidents, “none of which is really asking much,” Oliver concluded. “And until such time as these companies actually do these things, they should at the very least have to be much more transparent when it comes to the retail and workplace experience that they’re actually providing.”