Newsweek recently issued its 2023 list of Global Most Loved Workplaces. The survey makes clear that good pay and benefits matter, but culture has been the main thread tying these companies together. Their employees say they feel valued and appreciated at work, which translates into a workforce that stays longer and works harder for employers. A win-win.
One thing not on the list is workplace safety. In Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, personal safety is among the most fundamental, along with food and clothing. Worker safety isn’t mentioned in these “most loved” workplaces, because it’s fundamental table stakes—safety is so basic that these companies can focus on doing far more—and they do.
There’s no “worst 100” workplace list, but if you went hunting for nominations, you might start with companies on OSHA’s Severe Violator List that fail to address basic safety needs of workers—like Dollar General. For many years, the SVL was dominated by construction and manufacturing companies. To get on the list, a company might’ve had a catastrophic event arising from repeatedly violating a safety stand, releases of highly dangerous chemicals, or multiple “high gravity” violations for hazards the Occupational Safety and Health Administration designated as “high emphasis.”
But last fall, OSHA expanded the SVL program to go beyond catastrophe/chemical/high-emphasis areas, to include all health and safety workplace hazards, a new standard that could bring more retail companies and other industries into its orbit. Employers with two or more willful or repeated violations of any type are now covered by the program. And getting out of the program is a heavy two to three-year lift, requiring follow-up inspections, a potentially onerous set of settlement provisions, payment of fines, and no further violations.
What does a company on the expanded Severe Violator List look like? Take Dollar General, a retail discount chain that hasn’t appeared on any employee “most loved” workplace lists. The company, with over 19,000 US stores and more than 170,000 employees, recently reported over $37 billion in annual revenues and $3.3 billion in annual profits.
Since 2017, Dollar General has been fined more than $16 million for violations at over 180 locations, with multiple repeated violations for things like blocked emergency exits and aisleways, unsafe electrical boxes and cords, and boxes stacked high in danger of falling. In the first four months of 2023, 21 violations with fines totaling $2.1 million have already been levied.
Sign up for our In-House Counsel newsletter, showcasing the news general counsel needs from Bloomberg Law.
It’s more than just boxes and electrical cords. Basic security at Dollar General stores, which often market to low-income rural and urban areas, is also a problem—since 2014, 49 workers and customers were killed and 172 more injured at company stores. Bodies have been found in parking lots. Last month, a Dollar General employee in Monroe, La. was charged with manslaughter after taking matters into his own hands—he shot and killed a man who was robbing the store. According to a clerk, it was the sixth armed robbery at that store since August 2022. Charges were later dropped.
Nor does the pay make up for the hazard. The Economic Policy Institute wage tracker looks at worker pay at 66 large retail and food service companies, including the major fast food and grocery chains. According to the tracker, 92% of Dollar General employees are paid less than $15 an hour, placing the company alone in last place among the 66 firms. Twenty-two percent are paid less than $10 an hour. You’ll do better at Burger King, Chipotle, or Red Lobster.
Is being a Severe Violator a scarlet letter, or just a cost of doing business in a model that drives profit with stores that have inadequate storage, low security, and poor employee pay? While Dollar General employees protest, there are few signs of internal momentum for change.
When a group of shareholders proposed conducting an internal audit of management and business practices that were contributing to the safety and violence issues (a reasonable suggestion given the company’s lackluster response to past problems), the Dollar General board of directors recommended against it. Shareholders approved it anyway. No word yet on whether an audit will be done.
Here’s an idea. Where audits and fines don’t work, OSHA should have the power to impound the company’s private jet, reduce bonus payouts to $0, and require members of the board and executive team to work at a randomly selected location that has experienced multiple and documented safety violations—at the median hourly rate for employees at that store.
And keep them there until the company earns its way off the Severe Violator List. Or until it’s voted onto the Global Most Loved Workplaces list. That would fix it.
Rob Chesnut consults on legal and ethical issues and is the former general counsel and chief ethics officer at Airbnb. He spent more than a decade as a Justice Department prosecutor and later oversaw US legal operations at eBay.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: