Seasonal workers that are hired for the holidays show how far labor rights have yet to come.
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, loyal employee Bob Cratchit asks his boss, Ebenezer Scrooge, for Christmas day off to spend with his family. Scrooge, a wealthy, greedy man, begrudgingly agrees to Cratchit’s request, yet doesn’t believe that his business should have to suffer while Bob takes a holiday, despite his strong work ethic, tolerance of long hours and extremely low pay. Cratchit can’t even afford to feed his family or take his son to a doctor. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since A Christmas Carol was published in the 1840s.
Or have we? More than 150 years later, the tale of workers being mistreated by their bosses during the holidays hasn’t changed much.
As many of us shop for our family get-togethers, buying Rogue One memorabilia and popcorn trios, about 650,000 temporary employees in malls and warehouses across America are laboring almost 12-hour days with few worker rights. While the most interaction we might have with these workers is at the checkout, television can offer insight into the economic conditions of hourly and seasonal workers.
In season two of Superstore, Glenn the store manager decides to hire someone to be Santa. However, the chosen employee, who looks like Santa’s twin brother, refuses the job when he’s told that it pays “a thousand smiles” and “the wonder on a little kid’s face” instead of money. Similarly, in Modern Family’s first season, Cameron and Mitchell complain that the mall Santa, a homeless veteran, is too thin for the job. The man is fired on the spot and replaced by a more traditional looking Saint Nick. While Superstore and Modern Family exaggerate some of the negatives associated with seasonal labor – extremely low pay and unfair termination – their depictions are not far from the truth.
The demand for seasonal workers begins as early as Thanksgiving, as stores anticipate the shopping madness of Black Friday. In another Superstore episode titled “Black Friday,” the show delved into employees’ worst retail nightmares. To prepare for the onslaught of crazed shoppers, the store held a potluck for the team to fill up and prepare for a long day of work. Unfortunately, all of the employees were stricken with food poisoning during the busiest shopping day of the year. Instead of taking sick leave, the employees are forced to struggle through their shifts by the unsympathetic store management. Many holiday shoppers may not stop to consider that there is no mandate in the US for workers to get paid sick days, leaving hourly and seasonal workers the most vulnerable to illness.
Has the shift from Black Friday to Cyber Monday helped the seasonal worker’s plight? To the contrary – retailers like Amazon, Walmart, UPS and FedEx recruit thousands of workers for the deluge of holiday online purchases. Amazon recently began seasonal mandatory overtime of five 11-hour shifts per week, under harsh conditions and unrealistic expectations, to respond to the spending tsunami. Come the new year, the majority of those seasonal employees will once again become unemployed.
Seasonal jobs are not known for large paychecks or perks, but rather as a way to make ends meet. Full-time employee benefits are not offered in seasonal roles, and other incentives such employee discounts also may not apply. But it’s hard for people to empathize with temporary workers without having been employed in similar situations – 12 hours a day, no benefits, minimum wage (or less), lack of proper training, impatient consumers, among other issues.
Storylines like Modern Family and Superstore humanize workers who are exploited by terrible working conditions, both during the holidays and year-round. Viewers in online discussion forums like Reddit highlighted the power of empathy in Superstore, commenting, “I have really grown to love this show. I am starting to care about the characters, not all comedies are able to accomplish this.” The ACLU, Jobs with Justice, AFL-CIO and other workers’ rights organizations can use can use these opportunities to add relevance to their issue by creating a hashtag and making gifs and memes connected to fan-favorite characters – social media content that is highly shareable and able to convey an important message.
Like us, Dickens believed that the best way to reach the largest number of people about poverty and social injustice was to write an emotional Christmas story rather than using fact sheets and essays. When viewers care about the characters from popular television shows, they feel for the struggles and hardships that the characters face. When your organization’s issue is covered in a popular television show that is adored by millions of viewers, consider it a gift, holiday season or not.
Alina Evans is a communications associate at AndACTION.