'Slowly Killing My Soul:' Life at Target, Vol. 2

Last week, we brought you true stories about life as a Target employee, in honor of the ongoing campaign to unionize the virulently anti-union retailer. Today, we bring you the huge second installment.

The purpose of these posts is simply to give a voice to regular Target employees, and to give them a forum to air their grievances and describe their daily work life. "All retail jobs suck" is not a germane response to these employees. They know that already.

Tales from the Distribution Center

From a current distribution center employee:

I've worked in two Target warehouses since 2006. I've been shown the video where Target criticizes Unions. My Target is being targeted by Union organizers and we are always being taken into meetings and told that Unions are a bad idea for Target and "protect your signiture, don't sign anything" Then we are all approached individually to "talk about the Union". Our general manager attempted to get the names of organizers from a fellow employee who told him he had names. They really do treat us bad. We are robots to them. I've seen it for almost 5 years, Target stores are filled up with stock using "pleasant" slavery.

From a former distribution center intern:

What I learned was that they employees at the DC are basically being abused. Forced to work ten hour shifts with just two 20 minute breaks the entire day. And by the way, when the lunch bell rings, you have 20 minutes to get to wherever you are to the cafeteria, eat and get back to work. Often times it could take you up to idk, 8 minutes just to even get to the cafeteria, which served terrible food.

Crappy Hours, Crappy Wages

A young man's Target experience:

I worked at Target for about 5 years (16-21). I can corroborate a lot of the stories that have already been posted—I made about $.50 more when I left than when I was hired. I was hired at $.50 over minimum wage, although I was told for most starting wage is $.25 over minimum wage.

In the state I worked in, hourly limits on underage workers were limited to days that school was in session. So Sunday-Thursday during the school year, Target was required to let me out at 9:00pm. But on weekends and during school breaks (including Christmas, of course!) we worked as late as was deemed necessary (the week after I turned 18 the law was changed so that underage workers could not be kept past 9:00pm at any time. My store immediately stopped hiring underage workers.). I worked from 4:00pm - 2:00am on a regular basis, and often was scheduled to open the next day. My state also regulated that there had to be 8 hours between shifts, so any time we worked past midnight we were instructed to come in 8 hours later rather than the shift start time. Given a 30 minute drive to and from Target and time to bathe/dress, I did not actually get 8 hours rest. My record shift was 4:00pm - 4:00am, the night before public school started (I was a freshman in college at this point and worked a second job during the day).

The real kicker is that working all of these 10-12 hour shifts didn't mean more money. As soon as you were in danger of receiving overtime, your remaining shifts for the week were cut. Occasionally the managers would try to call in people who were scheduled for the day off and under 40 hours, but generally people refused the offer and those left working the shift were stuck doing the extra work. This ALONE is a good argument for a union.

An eight-year veteran's experience as a manager:

I saw things start to go rapidly downhill around 1999, perhaps they were afraid of Y2k. The whole approach of team first and fast and fun shifted to one of being written up right and left for things that hadn't even been an issue before. During that time I was promoted to LOD and offered the princely sum of 32k/year, yippee! I was put through Target management training which challenged my ability to not become an alcoholic while going through daily sessions in management/corporate speak...thinking out of the box and whatnot. After I was assigned to a store and a "team" my new manager told me my entire team were losers, making an "l" with his fingers on his forehead, it took me 4 months of steady 12 hour + shifts (or what the manager called "half days) to determine that I was being paid far less than I had as an hourly employee. I self demoted and vowed to NEVER be in a position of authority at Target again.

From a former cashier:

My first raise was fourteen cents and my second raise was eleven cents - both years I had the highest raises in my department, but made as much as the newly hired employees at a store ten minutes away. They cross-trained me in other departments and I wouldn't get paid the wage that a normal employee in that department got paid. I would be asked to cover a lunch in a department where the people got paid $.25 more than me and would end up having to work for seven hours. Once a year, we had to watch a ridiculous video warning us of the dangers of joining a union.

Another person whom I worked with ended up getting demoted from an ETL to a cashier and lost her pay raises because she wanted to move and stay with the company.

From a current employee:

My first year there, I received a 20 cent/hr raise that was pro-rated since I was not there for the entire year. Then, it just got ridiculous. My second year raise was $.09. Nine cents. My third year raise? Another 9 pennies. My fourth year? 10 cents! Finally, they had rounded up in my calculation (raises are percentage based).

And the hours, well to say horrifically embarrassing would be a gross understatement. In high school I worked about 25 hours—which is fine. In my early college days, my hours dropped to between 16 and 20—which again isn't too bad, although I would have appreciated more.

Currently, I'm getting 3 hours a week. I work one day. I am down from 25 or so just a few years ago. I joke with my friends that I'm making 33% more this week if they happened to give me four hours. It is a joke. Laughter just hides my internal depression about the whole charade. My bank account looks like a 7-year-old's piggybank.

From a young woman whose first job is at Target:

I would like to go to college, but I honestly cannot afford it because I need to work as much as possible to just make ends meet. I actually earn about 50 cents more than most of my coworkers, but there are still some months that I wonder how to pay rent. Sure, I could get a second job, and I try to, but there are simply no jobs open. I think a union would make sense, because at least then we have some hope of having a say. Currently, we honestly get shit hours, benefits are minimal and expensive, and reviews are a joke. We stay until all hours of the night to get things done, and we get acknowledged with just a great team card. I like the people at my job just fine, but the minimal hours, shitty pay, and the mindset that we should just deal grates on me. To reiterate, I am young- but I still need enough money to live, and this kind of job is the only one I can hold until I gain the skills I need to survive elsewhere. If a union can make Target into a place with an awesome environment AND at least passable pay and benefits, I am all for at least giving it a try, and maybe then I can actually afford college without spiraling into lifelong debt. Just because its a retail job does not give it a pass for being a shitty job. I also apologize if this email doesn't make much sense- I'm not a very eloquent person.

Workplace Issues and Horror Stories

From a former employee in California:

I worked as a "day-side" Electronics team member, but occasionally I'd come in super early to do price revisions and I would hear stories from the overnight team members. Most of the overnight staff at my Target are not native English speakers (in fact it's pretty much impossible for a non-Hispanic to get an overnight job). One day, as I was ripping down price strips, I mentioned to my co-worker that I'd rather work overnight since I hate dealing with people. One of the overnight ladies overheard me and shook her head gravely. It was eerie. She motioned for me to come over and whispered to me, "You don't want to work overnight here. It's so much worse." She proceeded to tell me that they weren't allowed to stop working to use the bathroom or else they would get in trouble. She also said that they were treated like slaves, and if they didn't get the requisite amount of work done in the time they had, they would get a write up or "coaching." Often times, to finish all the work demanded on them, they wouldn't take their corporate mandated 15 minute breaks and the managers didn't even make sure the breaks were being taken. When Team Leads who were hired to work overnight tried to change these slave-like conditions (these were often the most loved team leads) the ETLs would find a reason to fire them. It sounded pretty sketchy.

I also know people who lost their insurance because the store couldn't give them enough hours to keep it (I think you have to keep an average of 25 hours a week to stay insured under Target's policy). Sometimes, they wouldn't even receive a notification that their insurance policy had ended, and they'd find out the hard way when the bill would come from their doctor. Generally, my Target tried to give team members 5 days of work a week and about 38 hours a week. However, in the off-seasons, we'd have our hours slashed drastically. There were weeks when I was only getting 19 hours. At my NY Target, the managers gave Christmas bonuses to all employees. At my LA Target, they slashed hours for us lowly "team members" so the ETLs could get larger bonuses. This meant I'd go from getting tons of hours in December, to barely any come January/February (when I had to struggle to pay my bills for the gifts I'd bought).

I know new team members who were fired after they had a safety incident even if it was technically the store's fault. (If you are in your first 90 days at the store you are technically on probation and not officially hired, so new team members who have safety incidents or any incident are immediately let go).

From a former employee in Illinois:

I worked at Target for about 4 years of my life. I believe it was during my second year review I was given an $0.11 raise for a lame reason. I worked in the back room which has hundreds, if not thousands, of locations for products. The reason I was not given a full raise was because the manager said "If I asked you for an item you couldn't go in the back and already know where it was exactly located." We crammed so many items in each box in so many different locations not even the second coming of Jesus would know where they were. The manager's name was Jared and he had a Creed tattoo on his shoulder.

About unions: While I was never subject to any union videos or talks there was a group that was, the Hispanics. The people who showed up at Target to work at 5 am every day were the elderly and the Hispanics. When they would get off work the old people would leave, probably to eat dinner at 1 pm, while the Hispanics would usually hang out in the parking lot with each other talking and having fun. This quickly caught the eye of the management who immediately jumped to the conclusion that they were trying to form a union. There was a panic amongst the upper level workers and all the Hispanics were taken aside one day and given the unions are bad speech. I just remember trying not to work and laughing at management running around like chickens missing a head.

A working mom's Target experience:

I was hired at Target a couple of years ago for a job as a cashier to help pay bills while I finished my degree. One of the points I made clear to the management team during the interview was that I am the sole custodian of two school-age children, and that any time either of the children were sick, had an appointment, etc., I would have to leave work or miss a shift to take care of them. If this wasn't acceptable, I told them, I would understand and be on my way. The interviewers were very sympathetic and promised that my issue wasn't a deal-breaker, and that if hired, I would have leeway regarding attendance. I was hired later that day.

At orientation, we were shown an anti-union video, as previously mentioned by other employees. One of the characters in the video is a mother who shows up late to her shift because of something she had to do for her child (I believe she had to take him/her to school). She has also shown interest in signing up for a union. She is warned by her supervisor that if Target were to go union, she would just be viewed as a cog in a machine, just a number, and that she could get in trouble for showing up late. He adds that since no big bad unions were ruining things as of yet, Target's management would continue to see her as an individual and be understanding of her specific circumstances, like having to take her child to school. This seemed to go right along with the understanding and assurances that my store's management had showed me during my interview.

Once I began working, however, all of that understanding and leeway went right out the window. When I did have to leave work to pick up a sick child, or miss a shift to stay home with a sick child, I was treated horribly by management. You would have though I had walked into the store and murdered kittens in front of everyone. I was written up several times, and told to stop letting everyone down by missing "so much" work (I'm talking about two days a month here). I was terrified to ever get sick myself, lest I be made to feel like dog shit for calling out. I often just went to work sick, which usually resulted in being sent home (rightfully so), but then come review time, I would be chastised for "leaving work early" those days. I received no leeway or special consideration whatsoever regarding attendance, despite what I had been told prior to signing my new hire paperwork. A few months in, I finally got fed up and brought up the assurances made to me during my interview to several ETLs and the STL. I was told in no uncertain terms that it never mattered why I ever missed work, only that I missed work, and that I was no more special than anyone else. It was the exact same scenario that the anti-union video proposed would happen if Target were union. I was constantly stressed out, worried that the next time one of my kiddos got a fever I'd be fired.

I lasted at the bullseye for almost a year and a half by getting a lot of help from friends when my kiddos were ill. Eventually, though, I was fired for so-called poor attendance, the first time I had ever been fired in my life. Thanks for all that understanding, Target.

From a person with a decade at Target, including management:

One of the biggest and most legitimate complaints has to to with the level of experience among management. Stores wouldn't even consider an employee for a junior executive position (ETL) unless she or he had a degree. It needn't be in business; co-workers of mine who worked at Target as hourly managers (Team Leaders) while they spent six or seven years putting themselves through college were suddenly presented with promotions - sometimes just weeks after obtaining their degrees - in fields as diverse as Biology, Music Performance, and Japanese.

In my time there I hired over 200 people and fired 5. Most people working there were awaiting an opportunity to leave retail, and Target was a relatively comfortable place to do it. In my 7 years I went from $6.95/hr to over $13. when I left, Team Leaders were being scheduled 36 hours a week and being pressured by ETLs to work off the clock and overnight, whereas the HR-ETL on the premises was always looking to catch people working off the clock and chastise them. It was either a conflict of competing interests or a clever way to get employees to work for free without vocalizing that they did it for fear of retribution.

At one point, a number of Team Leaders from several stores were asked to report to the District Headquarters in an office park. There we received training on the history of unions and the steps forward that workers had made in the industrial age because of them. Then we learned what to do if we suspected unionizing activities in our stores (including calling a tip line.) At that point, Target owned Marshall Field's and Mervyn's, and there was one unionized store, a former Hudson's, somewhere in the Detroit Region.

The statement I most remember from this workshop was that unions had done great things in their time, they have an important place in American History, but "we don't want them in our stores." The trainer seemed to genuinely believe that Target provided enough compensation, opportunity, and channels to direct opinions; it was "doing right by" its employees.

From a former Target Group Safety Leader:

Throughout my tenure, I saw rampant bullying of my peers (mostly middle management by sr. level), trumped-up allegations to force employees out (all couched in ridiculous Target vernacular) and outright blatant lying by those trying to have someone fired...

Target is incredibly sensitive to its branding and does not want anyone to jeopardize it. If they believe an employee is not projecting the correct "brand" they will set out to make life so miserable so the person quits, or they will set up a bunch of false reasons to get the paperwork going for their termination. Employees who do not quickly grasp the Target language, project the "right" attitude, and embrace the Target culture head on are immediately put into this reject pile. I have never seen such employee conformity in my life.

It is expected that each manager identify "problem performers" (on a monthly basis) to sr. managers with a written course of action on how they will go about terminating them. Of course, Target is so savvy that they ensure every base is covered to prevent future litigation. What's so soul crushing is there are always several other employees to substantiate false claims knowing if they don't they're gone as well. The turnover rate at middle management level is incredibly high. Go figure. While some of the firing is justified, most has little to do with overall performance and more to do with key management just not liking the person.

From a Target veteran:

Over the course of 7 years, 3 stores and 2 states, I did everything in the store from unloading trucks at 4 am to answering phones at the fitting room to keeping track of all the cash in the safe to working for HR at the district level. When I was working full-time it was most often as the person who handled payroll, scheduling, hiring and training, but never as an executive. HR in any one store is just an Executive Team Lead (ETL) and a Level 2 assistant with minimal oversight by the Store Team Lead. If you get on HR's bad side you are screwed. If you even MENTION the word union in the store you get pulled aside and reprimanded. During a meeting with some district level executives once I heard them say a union is the worst possible thing that could happen to Target and that at least 50% of HR's job on a store level is to quash any rumblings about unionizing. Besides the joke of a video shown during training, the ETL's were supposed to casually spread anti-union thoughts.

On Mondays when I did payroll, part of my job was to make SURE everyone who who worked a full day had taken a lunch because it was required by law. And every Monday I had half a dozen team members who said "Just put down whatever - they didn't let us take lunch but I don't want to get written up and I know I'm not allowed to go over 40 hours." Everyone was always trying to work exactly the right number of minutes so you could avoid overtime (which was almost never approved) so you didn't make the STL mad and end up getting fired. When we didn't make as much in sales as projected everyone had to fight to keep their hours and not fall below the level that qualified you for benefits. It is really easy for a vindictive executive to get you to lose your health insurance just by saying there isn't enough payroll to let you work 32 hours a few weeks in a row...

Sidenote: My mom has worked for Target for more than 13 years. She told me a few weeks ago she's not even sure the current Store Team Lead knows her name.

From a current employee:

Most people are just trying to pay their bills, they don't have time to unionize or even think about it. Many of them are working two jobs, and they've got kids, and they're poor, without any education, and they're on some form of government assistance, and they work incredibly hard because they HAVE to. To the people that are suggesting that we should suck it up, or go back to school, or find other jobs, I don't even know what to say. It's hard work. It's tedious. It's stressful and infuriating and exhausting and it's not worth what we get paid but we don't have a choice, we have to work. There's no one to fall back on. There are always people to hire if someone decides to quit, yes, but shouldn't a company that claims to value its employees and their safety and well-being be able to prove that by paying them a living wage? Nobody expects to make 40 or 50 or 60k for stocking shelves or folding t-shirts or cashiering, but starting everyone at slightly more than minimum wage and giving them 10 cent raises once a year and making it virtually impossible to move up in the company( because the only way to become an assistant manager(ETL in Target lingo) or higher is to have a college degree, so even if you're 22 and you majored in Russian literature and you have no retail experience you can be put in charge of people who have worked there for 20 years and know more than you ever will about your job) is wrong. It's just wrong.

The worst part, though, is the condescension, the humiliation, that underscores everything about working in retail, but that's even more prevalent and insidious at a company that is obsessed with being perceived as better, classier, cleaner, nicer than its competition.

I've had a lot of fun working at Target, I like some of my co-workers and some of my bosses, I've managed to find a niche where I'm reasonably happy with the work I'm doing, but I don't see myself staying there for much longer. The bullshit: the time that's wasted on things like "huddles" (basically a meeting where the managers give you stupid cards because they saw you wiping puke off the floor or because you managed to do your job competently, or at the very least they saw you not fucking something up), the ridiculous names for everything, the constant obsession with safety which is really just about not getting sued, all of it is just too much not to roll my eyes at. I can't do that, though, and pretending like it isn't ridiculous is slowly killing my soul.

And don't forget:

MY target store had such a problem with people shitting in the dressing rooms and between the clothes racks that we created a walky talky alert: "Code Brown."

On the Bright Side

From a former employee who worked at Target during college:

Overall, it was a decent place to work, though the pay was pretty crappy. I never really saw any abuses that warranted the foundation of unions in the stores, and never really considered it a big deal. While it may help the pay, and I'm certainly not against it, it didn't seem to me that unions were really necessary to check gross exploitation of the workers.

From an 18 year-old employee:

People told me I'd hate the job. Turns out, I love it because of the praise and rewards I get for doing a damn good job. Managers and team leads are amazingly friendly. I love working here. Everyone knows who everyone is. We treat guests as though we've known them for years.
A store is defined by those it hires. Our team must be amazing, because our store is always clean and well taken care of. I just got off an 8-hour shift a couple hour ago, on instocks. Finished everything ahead of time. The team gets parties and cookouts for a job well done. Again, I love working here. I'm treated with respect. I'm still a regular team member, and get paid $7.80 an hour.
This is my first job.

And finally:

But on the plus side that's where I met my wife and it's super easy to do hung over.

My sincere thanks to everyone who sent in their stories. You are all Target heroes.

[Photo: Patrick Hoesly/ Flickr]