A JC Penny employee checks out a customer at the Franklin Park Mall during the Black Friday sales event on Nov. 27, 2020, in Toledo, Ohio. (Photo by Matthew Hatcher/Getty Images)

On a typical afternoon during peak hours, retail workers at a South Florida Target store are slammed. Customers flood through the doors to do their shopping, drive-up customers fill the parking spaces and wait for their orders, and workers are scrambling to avoid a backlog of deliveries. As the holiday season approaches and Black Friday advertisements are out in full force, many workers are agonizing over what they expect to be pure chaos.

“This is nonstop right now, but Black Friday is even worse,” says a Black South Florida Target worker who has requested to remain anonymous in order to protect her job. “It’s really the worst day of the year to work.”

With global stock shortages, staff shortages, customers irritated over COVID-19 protocols and mask mandates, and few worker protections because of roadblocks to unionizing, BIPOC workers are especially nervous about what this Black Friday could bring. Black Friday is notorious for harsh working conditions in an industry where Black and Latinx workers already face worse circumstances than white workers. 

Seventeen percent of Black retail workers and 13% of Latinx retail workers live below the poverty line, compared to 9% of the retail workforce overall. While Black workers make up 11% of the retail labor force, they are less likely to be in a supervisor or manager position, making up only 6% of the industry’s managers. They also get paid less than their white counterparts. Seventy percent of Black and Latinx retail workers earn less than $15 an hour, compared to 58% of white retail workers. One-in-five Black retail workers want full-time employment, but are employed part-time involuntarily and face unstable and sometimes erratic schedules, a tactic employers use to increase the flexibility of their workforce even though it puts extra pressures on already disadvantaged workers.

Come Black Friday, the conditions are exacerbated after companies spend thousands on advertising exclusive sales and merchandise, luring millions of shoppers out to “big box stores,” with some like Walmart and Best Buy opening as early as 5 a.m. For the employees, this means excruciatingly long hours and endless crowds with few worker protections. Most stores offer employees time and a half wages and sometimes an additional store discount, and this year, The New York Times reported that retailers are offering even higher wages and tuition reimbursement for long-term employees. But with incidents of violence against retail workers growing, and worker burnout after two years of pandemic conditions, many say Black Friday’s risks are not worth the reward.

The last time Jessy Murillo, the lead sales associate at a DSW in New Orleans worked on Black Friday in 2019, she vowed to never do it again. 

“Working on Black Friday was surreal, it was very exhausting,” she says.

Murillo, who is Latina, is no stranger to the impacts of a worker shortage and heightened tensions from COVID-19 precautions as a retail worker. She already has to deal with agitated customers who get frustrated with her for enforcing the store’s mandatory mask policy. As Prism previously reported, this is an ongoing issue for BIPOC front-line workers across the country, where some have even been attacked or killed for trying to enforce their company’s mask mandates.

“There’s always people that are not willing to cooperate, so you have that anxiety of going up to them and not knowing if they’ll go crazy on you,” Murillo says. “It’s a lot of confrontation and sometimes it’s a serious safety issue because you don’t know how they’ll react.”

In the past year, Murillo, who says she is 5’1”, had to approach a white, approximately 6’2” customer to tell him to put his mask on. She was anxious, given the innate power imbalance between the two. But her manager was on break, so she had to comply with company policy, otherwise she would be penalized. The customer pushed back, continuously asking why he had to wear the mask. Murillo cited the company policy and did her best to remain professional and calm to diffuse the situation. The customer responded in a rude and entitled manner, eventually acquiescing and just leaving the store.

“He felt like he could say and do whatever he wants because I’m Latina and 5’1”,” Murillo says. “He sees me as a tiny girl telling him to wear a mask.”

According to Wendell Young IV, the local 1776 chapter of the United Food and Commercial Workers union president, the overwhelming crowds and stampedes that Black Friday attracts are the big box retailer’s fault.

“It’s the big box retailers who are largely non-union, so workers there don’t have a voice to organize and protect them, and to make sure the employers are keeping a safe facility for them,” Young says. “We see the mayhem they create that they could have better controlled with better messaging and the right amount of people and security to handle it. And they consistently don’t do it.”

Retail workers have long faced challenges to unionizing. Employers have embraced a high turnover workforce as a means to keep labor costs lower rather than offer opportunities for advancement. Without a union contract mandating raises, many retail workers are stuck in low-wage, dead-end jobs, causing them to look for opportunities elsewhere. 

“It’s a great reason why we should pass the PRO Act in this country so that these workers have a fair voice in informing and joining unions and have a collective voice to negotiate better standards in the workplace,” says Young. “But right now they can’t raise their voice because they get singled out, intimidated, abused, and run out the door, and there’s no protection for them.” 

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act of 2021 is a landmark worker empowerment, civil rights, and economic stimulus legislation that would expand various labor protections related to employees’ rights to organize and collectively bargain in the workplace.

For now, retail workers have taken to the subreddits r/Antiwork, r/WorkersStrikeBack, and r/BlackFridayBlackout to call on workers to boycott Black Friday by not participating in wage labor and shopping.

“For 50 years, we have given concession after concession to the bosses and the owning class, all under the guise of being thankful to have a job,” wrote a moderator of the subreddit page r/WorkersStrikeBack in an emailed statement. “But, they can’t turn a profit if we don’t show up to work. So, they need to pay a livable wage, not survival wages but a wage where your family can thrive. Or they can start punching into the factory at five in the morning and working late-night shifts in retail themselves. But, we know they won’t, because it’s not worth it.”

Alexandra Martinez is the Senior News Reporter at Prism. She is a Cuban-American writer based in Miami, Florida, with an interest in immigration, the economy, gender justice, and the environment. Her work...