Wednesday Oct 04

Underpaid, Unsafe, and Ready to Organize

A 95-Store Survey of Workers’ Conditions in Metro Atlanta Dollar Stores

by Cameron Greensmith, Kayla Reives, Sophie Saffan, and Caitlyn Shiner

Georgia State University


Dollar stores are everywhere. With over 37,000 locations in the United States, a figure that dwarfs Wal-Mart’s 4,600, the dollar store industry hasn’t just fundamentally reshaped the retail environment—it has profited off and contributed to economic decline in vulnerable communities (Feuer, 2023). The discount store business model depends both on workers being willing to accept low wages for difficult work, and on consumers not being able to afford to shop elsewhere. 

As Family Dollar’s founder Leon Levine obituary in The Wall Street Journal noted “Levine sometimes found locations by looking for oil stains on the pavement – a sign of the leaky cars driven by poor people.” The industry has cornered the market in low-income communities of color and rural areas where local businesses of all kinds have shut their doors ​​(Gonzalez, 2019). As the costs of basic household goods and rent costs have skyrocketed since COVID-19, dollar store stock values grow and grow (Lee, 2023). The profits of Dollar General alone, the largest of the discount store chains, grew from $110 million in 2008 to $2.4 billion in 2022 (Dollar General, 2022).

ACORN International’s experience with the Dollar Store Workers United triggered a partnership with four MSW candidates at Georgia State University in Atlanta to survey dollar store workers as their capstone project.  This study, the largest mixed methods investigation of discount store working conditions so far undertaken, seeks to understand and uncover the inequality dollar store workers experience as they navigate the terrain of low wages, exploitation, and unsafe work conditions. Other studies, such as smaller case studies and ethnographies, as well as quantitative projects on food insecurity and food deserts, have not explored dollar store job satisfaction and working conditions to this extent.

Like most parts of the United States, there is a large pool of dollar stores to study in Atlanta—more than 170 within the I-285 perimeter. Our project centers on Atlanta’s geography, which includes the city’s demographics and politics, making it the perfect place to investigate on-the-ground store conditions of an industry with roots in the South and known for exploiting low-income communities of color across the United States (Shannon, 2021). The City of Atlanta is rife with issues like gentrification, racial profiling, and police violence, which manifest the same racial and economic inequalities faced across the United States. The sprawling city and suburbs are home to a range of racially and economically diverse communities (Greensmith & King, 2022; Shannon, 2021).

The thorough investigation of stores in a variety of different “types” of neighborhoods makes this large study center the dialogue on the impact of dollar stores nationally. Our findings, which are gathered from stores in the City of Atlanta, surrounding municipalities, and suburbs, met the following goals: 1) visiting and surveying as many dollar stores as possible in metro Atlanta; 2) assessing the prices of various household items to see if they were consistent across stores; and, 3) acquiring contact information for each employee we were able to engage.    

Relevant Literature

Previous scholarship has established that dollar stores are exploitative, unsafe, and profit from low-income communities, particularly those disenfranchised by race. Dollar store workers, consumers, and local economies are all impacted by the industry. As of 2021, it employed 363,000 people across the United States (Smith, 2022). The industry has grown by cornering the market in low-income communities of color in de-industrialized areas where local businesses have closed (MacGillis, 2020). Rather than fill a void in underserved areas, as dollar store executives claim, the stores actively put local grocers out of business.  Dollar stores are hardly oases in food deserts.  Once in place, they employ fewer people, on average, than the businesses they replace, which leads many communities to view their labor model as extractive (Mitchell & Donahue, 2018). Workers who spoke to the project noted that there just is not enough staff to complete all the work required of them and describe their employer’s relationship to their plight as apathetic at best.  As an example, workers at Dollar General created a Facebook group called “Putinaticket,” an inside joke referencing the response they so often heard from corporate in response to any problem.

Moreover, dollar stores have a history of systematically underpaying their employees. In a series of lawsuits throughout the 2000s, courts diverged on whether dollar store managers should be exempt from earning overtime pay. The chains arguably abuse the language of the Fair Labor Standards Act[1] by restricting the hours that salaried managers could schedule their employees and requiring the managers to pick up the slack, doing the menial tasks to keep the store running (Frederick, 011). As a result, managers reported working long overtime hours and performing duties outside their managerial roles, all without receiving overtime pay. A more recent study found that the dollar store chains used an algorithm that allotted hours depending on the sales of a given store, resulting in stores in lower-income areas being assigned fewer hours (Vargas, 2021). This demonstrates the need to understand the experiences of dollar store workers, particularly from a workplace safety perspective. Stores in the lowest income areas suffer the most from understaffing. The resultant staff stress and disarray in those stores lead to safety and sanitation issues (see Figures A and B). Finally, dollar stores are more common in communities of color (Shannon, 2021). The negative effects for both workers and consumers disproportionately impact Indigenous, Black, and people of color communities. This is a clear example of what some scholars describe as corporations’ targeting of racialized communities in order to exploit them for cheap labor (Shannon, 2021).

Previous Efforts to Address Dollar Store Inequality

The most common legislative response to the proliferation of dollar stores has so far been municipal dispersal ordinances that establish a one-mile separation requirement for the construction of new dollar stores. Many cities, including Atlanta and several others in Georgia, have passed such ordinances (Drichoutis et al., 2015). Legislation restricting the construction of new dollar stores comes from the combined efforts of residents, their representatives, and local organizations. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, a city council member faced resistance from colleagues but succeeded in passing a dispersal ordinance in 2018 after residents rallied to protest a new store (Mitchell & Donahue, 2018).

Beyond limiting the spread of dollar stores, it is important to promote and uplift local businesses and grocery stores, which would address the root cause of a community’s vulnerability to the development and implementation of dollar stores across the United States—poverty (Shannon, 2021). Along these lines, organizations devoted to economic development and fresh food access have raised money through federal grants and other sources to open local grocery stores (Mitchell & Donahue, 2018). Food co-ops aimed at promoting local business growth could generate wealth within communities, ending the dependency that makes dollar stores’ extractive business model possible.

Research Design: Ensuring Workers Speak

To understand and uncover the potential inequalities present within dollar stores in the Metro Atlanta region, Georgia State University MSW students partnered with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) International. ACORN is an international organization with 250,000 members across 15 countries and “work[s] on issues that matter to low- and moderate-income families in their communities, homes, and workplaces” (“ACORN Work,” 2023). ACORN assisted in the efforts of Dollar Store Workers United, an online organizing effort led by Georgia and Florida Dollar General manager Mary Gundel. Mary was fired for posting TikTok videos criticizing her employer’s lack of concern for safety and other issues (Corkery, 2022). The GSU students knew that Mary’s story was not an isolated incident, and wanted to partner with ACORN to investigate the ways dollar store workers were treated by their employers through the execution of a mixed methods study.  They utilized quantitative surveys and qualitative canvassing interviews to understand the experiences of dollar store workers, their experiences of wage and other forms of inequality, as well as assess the quality of working conditions impacting dollar store workers explored fully below. They visited 95-dollar stores (specifically, Dollar General, Dollar Tree, and Family Dollar; see Appendix A) in the City of Atlanta and surrounding suburbs.

The project wanted to understand what the working conditions were actually like, through our observations (e.g., survey questions assessed questions such as ‘whether the parking lot is maintained,’ ‘whether shelves were clean/easily accessible,’ ‘whether security was present,’ and ‘whether fresh produce was available for purchase’). Moreover, we were curious about the cost of household goods within different neighborhoods and counties such as tampons, toilet paper, paper towels, toothpaste, and body wash, and looked for disparities. We also interacted with dollar store workers and had conversations about equitable pay, overtime, adequate staffing, the ways corporate handled tickets, and if they wanted to speak with other dollar store workers in the Metro area.

We understood that speaking to workers could potentially involve some risk. But we were taken aback by the workers' candid responses. Almost all dollar store workers were willing to speak with us in some capacity. They shared stories of being frustrated, apathetic, and outright pissed! Others shared stories of being treated with dignity and respect, indicating that they even liked their job. When asked whether dollar store workers would share their contact information to communicate further—60% of the workers said they would do so. Interestingly, of the workers who were willing to speak with us, 71% of them shared that they would be willing to connect after work hours to learn more about what other workers are experiencing across Metro Atlanta. The dollar store workers we spoke with were overwhelmingly Black women.

The level of store security, appropriate levels of staffing, and overall conditions varied widely depending on the neighborhood. For example, a squeaky-clean Dollar General in wealthy Midtown offered a selection of fresh produce. Local public safety officers waited with an unhoused man who had collapsed with some sort of injury on the front steps of the store. Only blocks away at a Family Dollar in a less affluent area, men from the neighborhood voluntarily stood to watch outside the disheveled store, which was frequently ravaged by shoplifters while the assigned security guard split his time between two posts. The difference is not attributable to the difference in the company; many Dollar Generals in other areas were in rough shape. The key difference was that in low-income neighborhoods, the stores reflected their surroundings—left behind, understaffed, and vulnerable to poverty-related crimes.

The Difference in a Dollar

Of the 95 stores surveyed, 47 were Family Dollar, 28 were Dollar Tree, and 20 were Dollar Generals. Given that Family Dollar and Dollar Tree are owned by the same parent company, we expected some differences between these stores and Dollar General (Digiday, 2019). Comparatively, Dollar Generals have stricter product security. They have many name-brand items (e.g., razors and condoms) placed in security cases and require employee assistance to access. While all stores had some cleanliness issues, Dollar Generals had more leaks, broken light fixtures, cluttered aisles, and safety concerns than Family Dollar and Dollar Tree. We found Dollar General workers to be the most hesitant to speak with us. Many said they would need to get permission from their manager first, or that only a manager (who was invariably unable to speak at the time) could speak with us.  This may reflect the activity and attention that Gundel and other workers have gotten in the media in this area and a corporate avoidance campaign designed to snuff out any store-based organizing.

Dollar General was the only store that had locations selling fresh produce. However, these items were priced much higher than $1.00, making the only benefit of shopping at said locations the convenience, not the price (Bitter, 2023). While Dollar Generals had more workers who said they were paid overtime, they also had the lowest hourly pay for all employees. A company survey found that 92% of its employees make under $15 an hour, but we found that employees, including managers, were making closer to $11 an hour (Nadelle, 2022).

When comparing Family Dollar and Dollar Tree, we found much of the store conditions, staffing, and willingness to speak to be the same. However, we did find Family Dollars had more security presence and locked products than Dollar Trees. Initially, we recorded the prices of certain necessity items to confirm that these items were available at the advertised rate of $1.00. In doing so we discovered that Dollar Tree maintains set prices from items at $1.25 with “specialty items” ranging from $3-$5 while Family Dollars offer a wider variety of off and name-brand items, equipment, and appliances–air fryers, deep fryers–with significantly higher price ranges from $1.00 to $50.00+ depending on location. The higher-priced items, often name brands, were housed in locked cabinets or had additional security tags. Despite having a goal of providing affordable goods to lower-income communities, Family Dollar preys on those same people by offering higher-priced goods in exchange for the convenience of location (Coleman 2022).

Through our investigation, we have found that dollar stores benefit from the ‘poverty premium’ (Davies, 2022)—where lower-income people end up paying more overall as they buy goods in smaller amounts more frequently. Dollar stores target low-income consumers by supplying cheap household goods in small quantities, playing into a phenomenon that keeps people in poverty. Dollar stores may seem to benefit low-income communities by providing needed resources at low cost, but after witnessing people buy these items with EBT cards and struggle to count out the pocket change needed to cover a few dollars’ worth of goods, we have found the “benefits” of an industry whose profit model depends on a perpetually impoverished consumer base (Braff, 2022) to be essentially predatory.

Laying the Foundation for Organizing Workers

Working Conditions

The first step of the survey was to observe the store and document observed conditions. We assessed the stores outside area, beginning with parking lot maintenance, the presence of security, and the overall cleanliness.  70% of stores documented were marked as clean on the outside, with a well-maintained parking lot. We then moved inside, noting both the cleanliness and organization of the floors, aisles, and checkout station, as well as the accessibility of the store and availability of emergency exits. The numbers dramatically decreased, as only 41% of stores were considered “clean” by our standards (see Graph 1 and FigureA).

Shelves were clean only 49% of the time while aisles were clean 31% of the time (See Graph 2). We also noted whether security cameras or security team members were present.

What was most striking was the state of the stores. Most stores were not considered clean by our standards, with aisles and walkways faring the least well (see Figure B). Not only were these aisles dirty, often with leftover spills, but many aisles were filled with boxes of products, equipment, and other obstacles. Trash and grime were allowed to accumulate on the floors and other surfaces (see Figures A and B). One of us witnessed a customer slip and fall on detergent spilled in an aisle. Other customers were required to walk over large boxes to move in and through aisles. There was often more product boxed on the floor of the store than there was on the shelves. 78% of stores visited had walkways obstructed by boxes, equipment, product, etc. This could be attributed to the ratio of customers to employees present in each store. Most stores had one to two employees present at the time visited, with the average number of customers coming in at six. This imbalance contributes significantly to the organization and cleanliness of the store, as there are not enough employees to both handle customers and keep the stores fully stocked, organized, and clean.

The obstruction of walkways, combined with the fact that most stores did not have visible emergency exits, also raises safety concerns for employees and customers. Only 17% of stores had visible emergency exits. The stores also lacked a security presence. At one store, we witnessed a customer casually steal several items and walk out the front door. Though the staff noticed, they were too overwhelmed tending to customers and unboxing the week’s shipment to do much else other than comment and document. Only 18% of stores had security guards. It was clear, however, that a security presence was necessary. In fact, at two separate stores, we encountered local community members who had taken on the role of security because they were concerned about the safety of their community at these stores. 90% of stores, however, did have security cameras, an item that will not help keep workers or customers safe in any way, but may help the corporations involved pursue legal action after an incident has occurred (See Graphs 3 and 4). Security cameras may also contribute to employees feeling unsafe because they might be fearful that they are under constant surveillance by their corporate entity.

Understanding Job Satisfaction

The second step of the canvassing efforts was speaking with employees to gain insight into working conditions at dollar stores. We aimed to compare our data from employee responses to the anecdotal journalistic reports and articles spotlighting particularly egregious conditions. When asked to describe the experience of working at a dollar store, virtually everyone's immediate response was to laugh, verify that we wanted their honest opinion, and then check to make sure they were not being watched before answering. One of the biggest discrepancies came when we asked about wages and scheduling. Schedules ranged from five to fifty-two hours a week, with some workers saying they build their own schedule and could pick up more hours if needed. Others said their schedule was unreliable and it was difficult to pick up shifts. We suspect the reported range of hours worked is lower than the reality, given workers’ vague answers to questions surrounding overtime. A Dollar Tree employee specifically commented that cashiers were given five-hour shift limits per day, which attests to the difficulty for some employees to pick up an additional shift if they were hired as a cashier. Individuals who worked short shifts shared with us that they could not work more than a specific total of hours a week due to receiving financial assistance. One 67-year-old woman shared that she had already retired and worked at Dollar Tree to make additional income.

We did not ask for details on workers’ hourly rates, but some were willing to share these details. An employee commented they started at $9 an hour but were now at $16. A manager commented that after three years for the company they were only making $11.25. When asked about overtime pay, the majority of employees were not aware of the policy and were scheduled well under 40 hours, so they had never worked long enough to ask about it. One employee who had worked 42 hours stated they were paid overtime, while another employee who did 52 hours stated they did not make overtime. A Dollar General employee specified that managers are salary based, unable to earn overtime, but all other employees are hourly and able to earn overtime. This was not true of managers we spoke to at Dollar Tree and Family Dollar. Still, there remained no clear, uniform overtime policy for any of the stores, though more confirmed reports of overtime at Dollar General than others.

When simply asked if they felt that they were making enough money for their work, 53% were a resounding no. One employee said, “I make enough money, but when I have to lift something, I do not.”  33% said they felt like they were making enough, and some appeared offended by the question. The remaining staff felt they made “okay money” as many of them were working due to school or retirement. A commonality amongst staff was the notion of having a “side hustle” or working at a more reliable, “main” job in addition to the Dollar Store. One worker said, “I could never live off what I make here. Thank God this is only my side hustle.”

Staffing was another issue we sought to understand. 67% said that their store did not have enough staffing and 12% were unsure or stated that staff fluctuated (see Graph 5). Many of the employees stated that they would work at various store locations based on need, so while the store they originally applied to might be fully staffed, they could be moved to another location with less staffing. Some employees even stated that the quality of the staff was a larger issue as they would be sent staff who had not been sufficiently trained, thus causing more problems.

When asked about the corporate response to store repairs, concerns, or issues, the response was uncertain. 38% said corporate did not do well responding to “tickets” -- the system of formalized reporting of issues or incidents to higher-ups. One employee commented that they went over a month with broken glass from their Personal Protective Equipment behind their checkout counter after a robbery. It took a month to get the shield replaced. 44% stated corporate responds quickly or does a good job handling these requests. One employee stated that the entrance to the store had been shattered during a storm the day before and within an hour corporate had sent someone to clean the glass and board the door to prevent additional damage. However, roughly 18% of employees were not aware of any process to contact corporate, would default to a manager, or felt that corporate did a “so-so” job handling store issues brought to them.

Conclusion and Next Steps

Our systematic study of metro Atlanta area dollar stores shows that abuse and exploitation is a systematic, ingrained part of the discount store business model. But it also shows that many workers are prepared to do something to change that model. They are deeply concerned about wages, security, safety, staffing and scheduling. They are concerned about the dangers dollar stores create for workers, shoppers, and the wider community. All they lack is a clear plan to win and a willingness from organized labor to invest in building a durable organization composed of these workers. Press attention on the conditions of one or two stores is not enough–the problem is at the very heart of the discount store business model.

Our study lays the groundwork for dollar store workers to begin organizing collectively in Atlanta and elsewhere to bargain for higher wages, adequate staffing, better security, and more reliable schedules. Given the focused exploitation of “managers” of dollar stores, organized labor will have to think outside the traditional NLRB election box to seriously tackle organizing these workers. The highly profitable dollar store industry can afford to invest in all their workers, but without organizing, they will go on spreading and increasing the intensity of their hyper lean labor system: paying as little as possible and keeping as few people as possible on the payroll.

Right now, the dollar stores depend on growing inequality, on perpetuating poverty itself. America saw how radically Wal-Mart degraded the fabric of our communities with a similar approach. The spread of its business model upended expectations around employment and quality of life. Organized labor failed to meet the challenge posed by Wal-Mart, but dollar stores pose an even greater threat. Our study shows that there is promise in talking to these workers, documenting their conditions, and empowering them to connect on issues that matter to them. There is a major opportunity here, if organized labor is prepared to seize it.

[1] For more on the Fair Labor Standards Act visit the U.S. Department of Labor:

At the time of this research Cameron Greensmith, Kayla Reives, Sophie Saffan, and Caitlyn Shiner were participating as part of their capstone project for a Masters in Social Work at the Andrew Young Institute of Public Policy at Georgia State University in Atlanta.   David Thompson is research director at ACORN International and Wade Rathke is the chief organizer at ACORN.