A president of the United States this past week walked a picket line in solidarity with striking auto workers at a major American corporation. An amazing sight. What could President Biden do for an encore? He could stand before an outlet of a major American retailer—Dollar General—with a simple two-word placard.
The placard’s message? For Shame.
Americans—thanks to the solidarity of UAW members and the media and political attention that this solidarity has captured—now know a good bit about the pressures auto workers face. As a nation, unfortunately, we know next to nothing about the much heavier pressures on Dollar General workers.
Dollar General may well be, as a Bloomberg reporting team last week put it, the “worst” retail employer in the United States today. Why does that charge so matter? Dollar General has become “America’s most ubiquitous retailer,” with more outlets than Walmart and Wendy’s combined.
Dollar General’s core mantra, as Bloomberg sums up: “Build as many stores as possible, pack them with tons of stuff while using as little warehouse space as possible, and spend as little as possible on everything else.”
As little as possible on basic store upkeep. Businessweek investigators have “found expired products on Dollar General shelves,” everything from chicken soup in Louisiana to doughnuts in Illinois. In one Oklahoma store, birds nested in the ceiling and pooped down on the merchandise.
As little as possible on safety. Government inspectors have reported “fire extinguishers blocked by boxes” and “shaky, leaning towers of product” as high as nine feet tall. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration last year tagged Dollar General a “severe violator” of federal workplace safety law, in the process making the company the first major retailer to earn that dishonor.
And, of course, Dollar General spends as little as possible on wages. One of every four Dollar General employees makes less than $10 an hour, over half under $12, notes an Economic Policy Institute study of 2021 survey data. Even notoriously low-wage Walmart was paying workers, that same year, at least $12 an hour.
Dollar General doesn’t just skimp on wages. The company skimps on workers as well. Entire stores go hours every day with only one employee responsible for maintaining and servicing an average 7,500 square feet of retail space.
This brutal Dollar General approach to managing retail has paid off handsomely—for Dollar General investors and execs. The New York-based private-equity giant KKR bought up Dollar General for about $7 billion in 2007 and then watched happily as the Great Recession left middle-class households more desperate than ever for bargain-basement prices. KKR ended up exiting the Dollar General scene in 2013 after the company’s shares, notes Bloomberg, “had almost tripled” in value.
Overall, Dollar General’s stock price has quintupled since 2009, over double the share price gain at Walmart over those same years.
Top execs at Dollar General have profited quite amply from all these trendlines. Todd Vasos became the company’s CEO midway through 2015. Over the next six years, analysts at Equilar point out, he pocketed $182.8 million in compensation.
At the May 2022 Dollar General annual meeting, adds As You Sow executive pay researcher Rosanna Weaver, the company reported a CEO-median employee pay ratio of 935 to one, with Vasos collecting $16.6 million and the “median” employee a mere $17,773. But that published “median,” Weaver suggests, may have substantially overstated what the typical Dollar General employee actually took home.
The company, turns out, had recently changed its median calculations by “annualizing” the pay of permanent employees who didn’t work the full year. If an employee had to leave work to care for an ill family member, for instance, Dollar General calculated that employee’s “annual” pay as if that worker had labored the entire year.
CEO Vasos, for his part, remained on the Dollar General executive payroll after exiting the company’s top slot last fall, as a senior advisor. He has collected $15.6 million in the company’s most recent fiscal year, with his successor, Jeffrey Owens, pulling down a mere $12 million. Over another $14 million has gone to Dollar General’s four other top executive officers.
These hefty sums, Ranmore Fund Management Ltd portfolio manager Sean Peche reminds us, understate what the top execs at Dollar General have actually been making. Executive pay reporting standards focus on the value of stock awards calculated at the grant date of any awarded stock, not the date an executive actually cashes in on the stock’s market value.
According to the company’s latest figures, Dollar General’s new CEO is making 702 times the pay of the company’s median employee. But his predecessor Vasos, after cashing out on a huge chunk of his stock awards, made nearly 4,500 times the annual pay of his 163,000 employees. He essentially made more in a single weekday—$328,000—than his median employee could earn in 18 years.
But let’s not fall into the trap of attributing all this Dollar General “success”—for top execs and private equity wheelers and dealers—to some isolated individual greed grabs. Dollar General’s “success” essentially rests on a half-century of ever-greater American inequality. For two generations now, a shrinking share of U.S. income and wealth has gone into the pockets of America’s working families.
Simply put, thanks to this shrinking share, tens of millions of American families today couldn’t get by without the “bargain-basement” prices that dollar stores like Dollar General offer—at the expense of their customers’ health and safety and the economic security of their workers. The U.S. economy isn’t delivering for American families, and that failure is delivering—for investors in and executives at Dollar General—an opportunity to thrive at astounding levels.
Between 2008 and 2020, the American Public Health Association journal reported earlier this year, dollar stores like Dollar General upped their share of retail food purchases by just under 90 percent. Advocacy groups like the Environment, Equity & Justice Center have begun confronting that enormous surge. They’re pointing out that many dollar store chains “operate intentionally in food-deprived areas.”
The foods these discount retail chains offer up, meanwhile, come highly processed, offer little in the way of nutritional value, and sit packaged within toxic chemical-laden wrappings.
“Dollar General’s practices have an immense impact on communities across the country,” note advocacy attorneys Sara Imperiale and Margaret Brown, “especially communities of color and low-income communities.”
In other words, you’re likely never going to find the households of Dollar General execs doing their weekly food shopping at Dollar General outlets.