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As a Former Dollar Store Employee, Thank You, John Oliver, for This Episode of ‘Last Week Tonight’

It's a nightmare.

John Oliver sits at his news desk with a graphic on screen reading "dollar stores"

John Oliver has built a career on using comedy to explore smart takes on very important matters. This weekend’s episode of Last Week Tonight featured a great main segment discussing a true scourge of capitalism: dollar stores.

There are two major companies that dominate the market: Dollar General and Dollar Tree. Oliver notes that these two together have over 35,000 stores operating, which is more than all Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s combined. Even as someone who shops at (and used to work at) these stores, I was shocked! And I’m not alone; the audience actually gasped when they heard this information as well.

So why so many dollar stores? Let’s continue.

Exploiting their customers’ need

These two companies have billions in profits. Their customer base is lower income and I am glad that Oliver highlighted the discrepancy between the consumers and how those at the top market to them and exploit their needs. He pointed to an infamous quote from one Dollar General CEO who said on a 2020 earnings call, “We do very good in good times and we do fabulous in bad times.”

This illuminates their business model, where they capitalize on poverty and marginalization. It’s long been reported that dollar stores don’t actually save their customers money because while their costs are low, the quality and amount of product they sell is even lower.

Oliver broke down this concept using the bar soap Irish Spring, comparing their cost at Dollar Tree to the price at Target. Because the bars are actually smaller in size at Dollar Tree and come in packs of 2., compared to Target’s eight-pack of larger bars at $3.99, the Irish Spring at Dollar Tree costs 16 cents per ounce, and at Target it costs 13 cents per ounce. So technically, you are getting more bang for your buck at Target, even though these Dollar stores brand themselves as cost-beneficial.

While this is important information, it was not actually the focus of the segment. These stores exploit their customers’ need to cut costs in every trip to the store, but the main way these stores maximize their profits is through their abhorrent labor practices.

Oliver showed a TikTok video that highlights how sometimes whole stores are operated by a single employee, and that sometimes things will get so bad that customers will step up to help put away inventory that’s clogging the aisles—or worse, perishable food items sitting out going bad.

I used to work at Dollar Tree, and for all the reasons Oliver illustrates, I didn’t last long and was very fortunate to be able to quit. Having worked the register, I can testify that there were so many times that lines got long and people became agitated and I just stood there feeling helpless. Sometimes you can call for backup but sometimes there is no one to call. All this and more for a whopping $8.25/hour.

What does the non-anecdotal evidence say? Oliver points out that the average Dollar General employee makes $18,352 a year. Furthermore, 92% of their employees make under $15 per hour, which was the highest percentage of any company surveyed. This is of course not a liveable wage by any means. And it’s disgusting considering how successful they are as a company.

No one should be forced to work like this

It is not just the retail stores that have major challenges. Oliver also brought up how thousands of rodents have been found at Dollar General and Family Dollar distribution centers. Sure, some of these have been shut down, but how does this happen? I am sure that the CEOs wouldn’t tolerate this in their offices for one day. Another horrible example comes from a Dollar General that had a bird infestation and those birds did their number 2s on some of the merchandise. Even more unbelievable, workers were apparently told to not throw away the crapped-on products but to take them home, clean them, and return them to the shelves.

I cannot fathom having to take on that task. I would have quit on the spot and went to my nearest media outlet. The corporate higher-ups who never have to see the realities of these situations released a statement saying that they take “prompt action” on these matters.

All I’ll say is that having worked at a Dollar Tree, “prompt action” was not something I experienced regularly.

A real danger to employees

Unsurprisingly, given everything discussed above, Oliver brings up the many OSHA violations that have been brought regarding Dollar Tree and Dollar General. When I was working at Dollar Tree, I was struck by how lengthy their training was. I thought it was going to be fairly swift and easy. But a large chunk of the self-guided training videos involved how to keep yourself safe. Looking back, it definitely was just a ploy to protect themselves from liability. The boxes thrown around, the lack of order in many stores, the inability to take breaks—it all contributed to the unsafe workplace.

And then there’s the violence. Employees have reported being pistol-whipped, punched, held at gunpoint, and more. We cannot always control what happens, but these workers should be able to have good and helpful responses from corporate. One woman in a video shown by Oliver talks about her experience being robbed at Dollar General. She followed protocol and after a brief “How are you?” her manager’s second question was when they were going to re-open the store. No one in that situation is going to care about opening the dang store! It all highlights these companies’ lack of interest in the humanity of their customers and employees, as profits are the top and only priority

2023 has already been dubbed the year of the worker. Oliver highlights how dollar store employees have responded to their poor treatment by walking out—sometimes whole stores at a time. More massive pushbacks have been seen in other forms. Workers have tried to stage strikes but the companies have engaged in aggressive union-busting and shut those down at every turn.

As usual with Oliver’s work, this entire segment was funny but really did a good job giving insight into the stores that so many of us frequent routinely. I say this to not put blame on the customers, as I am one. But we have to keep speaking about the inequities in our capitalistic system.

(featured image: YouTube)

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