Blocked Exits and Aisles: Dollar General Faces Record Fines for Safety Violations

Cracks and potholes pockmark this Dollar General’s parking lot. Empty carts line the side of the building. Inside, the light is dim. Carts piled up with merchandise block some of the aisles.

The Dollar General store in Paterson, New Jersey is one of more than 18,000 stores that the discount retailer currently operates in the United States.

Yet, the company appears to care little for its stores’ upkeep and safety. It faces more than $7 million in proposed fines from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) for violating workplace safety standards, the highest figure in a decade.

The hefty sanction is no surprise to former Dollar General store manager Mary Gundel. When shoplifters began to use a side door at one of the stores where she worked in Florida, Gundel’s boss told her to block the exit, even if such action rendered it unusable in a potential emergency.

This was a typical solution to prevent their unauthorized use, Gundel recalls. Somebody in the management would just instruct the staff to take a heavy cart and shove it in the front of the door, she said in an interview with Columbia News Service.

The store where Gundel worked also often had heavy wheeled carts with unpacked merchandise standing in the aisles and along the walls, she said. There was no space to store them and no workers to unpack them when they arrived.

Apart from hampering movement inside the store, the heavy carts also occasionally injured customers who tried to push them aside to reach for an item on the shelves. “They either smashed or cut their finger,” said Gundel.

A Dollar General aisle is cluttered with merchandise.

Carts of merchandise block an aisle of a Dollar General Store in Paterson, NJ on Sunday, Dec 4, 2022 (Credit: Hongyu Liu)

Dollar General fired Gundel last spring after she had started posting social media video clips about her work. She later told her story for an article in The New York Times.

Gundel’s take on Dollar General’s apparent disregard for common sense safety is simple. “All they care about is money. They don't care about the people that work for them,” she said.

Dollar General didn’t respond to multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment.

The company’s poor safety record has not hampered its growth. Dollar General has roughly doubled its store count over the past decade, and it expects to open 1,050 new stores this year as inflation pushes many American shoppers to search for more bang for their buck.

The company’s profits have also steadily increased over the past decade. At the same time, Dollar General has received increasingly stiffer penalties for violating the same safety standards, again and again.

“Dollar General has shown a pattern of alarmingly willful disregard for federal safety standards, choosing to place profits over their employees' safety and well-being,” Assistant Secretary for Occupational Safety and Health Doug Parker said in a press release in November.

OSHA declined to comment on this story, stating that “we will let our previous comments found in news releases stand.”

A search within OSHA’s Establishment Search database for inspections of Dollar General shows citations for violations of federal workplace safety standards between 2010 and the end of 2022.

A deeper search that included records of inspections of Dollar General’s subsidiaries: “DG Retail,” “Dolgen,” and “Dolgencorp” showed even more. In all, the data shows OSHA has cited Dollar General or its subsidiaries for 556 individual violations since 2010.

The most often-cited violation is of a standard requiring exit routes be kept “free and unobstructed.” Dollar General has also frequently violated other standards that prohibit the use of working space for storage and require keeping a place of employment “in a clean, orderly, and sanitary condition.”

The violations seem to indicate that Dollar General tries to cram more goods into its stores than they can accommodate, causing the unpacked freight to overflow from back rooms to store aisles, which sometimes resemble an obstacle course that elderly and disabled customers must navigate, said Tracy Vargas.

Vargas worked at Dollar General for six months while doing ethnographic research. She is now an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

“I just felt really bad for the elderly and for those who had disabilities because this was the easiest store for them to get to, and they had to go through so much just to make their purchases. It was really unfair,” Vargas said.

Reactions to customer complaints can be slow. In her hometown in Minnesota, Mary Peterson has regularly called customer service to express her concerns since August 2021.

Though her original complaints were forwarded from the store manager to the district manager, nothing has changed since then

“It's everybody's blaming the next person higher or pointing fingers at the next person higher but nobody's wanting to take the responsibility to step in,” she said.

On October 18, 2022, after seeing no changes, she posted on Facebook several photos of blocked aisles at the store. The post received more than fifty comments including people from other towns saying they share similar experiences.

Less than a month after the post, Peterson heard from a regional manager of Dollar General who promised to look into the issue but is still waiting for changes.

And it is not that Dollar General is incapable of quick reactions. At the store where Vargas worked, when a cooler for soft drinks broke down, employees notified the higher management and it was repaired right away, Vargas said.

However, in contrast, when one of the two front doors fell into disrepair, creating a potential hazard, it was never fixed during the six months Vargas spent at the store, she said.

It is difficult to compare different companies’ workplace safety records because companies operate in different industries and differ in size and business model.

Nevertheless Dollar General’s tendency to rack up violations and penalties is “startling,” said Debbie Berkowitz, who worked as a chief of staff and a senior policy advisor at OSHA from 2009 to 2015. “I have never seen as many complaints about the same problem in so many different stores from the same company all over the country,” she said.

Comparing the safety records of different retail chains is difficult because they have different operating models. Based on OSHA data, Dollar General and its largest competitor Dollar Tree appear to violate safety standards more often than some other big retail chains.

The big-box retailers Kroger and Walmart have received much smaller fines than the dollar stores. There is, however, a difference in the size and number of stores. Kroger and Walmart have fewer individual stores which are many times larger compared to the discount chains.

For a rough comparison, in 2021 Walmart’s revenue was $370 billion and the total amount of OSHA fines was $240,000. Dollar General’s respective figures for 2021 were $34 billion and $2.3 million. Thus, Dollar General’s revenue was about one-tenth of Walmart’s revenue, but its annual OSHA fines were roughly ten times larger.

Dollar General’s fines keep rising in part because when calculating fines, OSHA views all individual stores operated by one company as a single establishment, according to Bloomberg Law.

This means when a Dollar General store is sanctioned for a safety standard violation at a store in one state, and then later at a different store in a different state, it is viewed as a single company when OSHA calculates penalties.

If violations of the same standard pile up, OSHA ratchets up the fines it imposes on the violator. This partly explains the sharp rise in penalties imposed on Dollar General in 2022.

OSHA can also judge, as it states in its manual, an employer’s violation as “willful” if the employer has “demonstrated either an intentional disregard” for the safety monitored by OSHA or “a plain indifference to employee safety and health.” This designation has also increased penalties against Dollar General.

In addition to sanctioning employers, OSHA also issues news releases about worker safety standard violators if the violations involve hefty fines. In 2022 alone OSHA has published eight press releases about Dollar General.

Matthew Johnson, an assistant professor at Duke University, has studied the effect of publicly naming employers that violate worker safety standards. While Johnson’s findings don’t directly apply to Dollar General, the findings argue that publicity about safety violations puts pressure on companies to comply with safety standards.

Yet, numerous news releases by OSHA about Dollar General’s violations have not compelled leaders at the discount retail giant to correct its behavior. There are speculative explanations for this, Johnson says.

One involves money. Although fines counted in hundreds of thousands of dollars are very high by OSHA standards, only about one percent of the fines OSHA levies are $40,000 dollars or higher, they are still comparatively small for big companies, Johnson said.

“As far as the fines go, for many companies, they might just be factored into the cost of doing business,” he said.

About the author(s)

Juhana Rossi is a student at the Columbia Journalism School (M.Sc. in Data Journalism) covering the construction industry in New York City.

Hongyu Liu is a data journalist and M.S. student at Columbia Journalism School.