She knows whereof she speaks, because that happened to her during the three years she worked as a beauty consultant for JCPenneys in Laguna Hills, CA.
Merino (not her real name pending possible legal action) worked a full-time shift that was supposed to end when the store closed at 9:30 pm. But, she says, "They would actually force us to stay until they told us we could go home. When they closed the store, they turned off the escalators, they turned off the air conditioning; it was so hot in there that you were actually sweating. A few times they locked the doors, but they stopped doing that when some of the employees asked, "What if there's a fire? What if there's an earthquake?'
Merino and the others found that their unpaid overtime involved work they weren't hired for. She says, "We had to go through the entire store and fold all the clothes and the make sure the hangers were all the right way. We're talking three levels here, and we had to walk up the stairs because the escalators were shut off. The store gets really trashed in the course of a day. You have purses on the floor, you have shoes—we had to put everything back on the shelves.
"The woman in charge would announce over the loudspeaker that she saw someone laughing, so everyone had to stay longer. It was just insane. One of the other ladies said she had to go home to be with her kids, but they told her she had to stay. She was actually stopped by the police on her way home once because she fell asleep at the wheel of her car.
"A lot of us were single women. You go out into the parking lot late at night, and it's cold, it's foggy—it was pretty scary. One woman was robbed at gunpoint in that parking lot. Imagine how a woman feels thinking she's getting off at 9:30 and then she's there until midnight or 1:00 am.
"We weren't paid for the overtime, either. We worked 37.5 hours a week full time, but then we were made to stay and clean up until we were told we could go home. They told us, 'If you leave, you'll be fired.' People were afraid to speak out because they'd lose their jobs and of course people need their jobs.
"Working retail, you had two ten- minute breaks and 45 minutes to an hour for lunch; you were on your feet all the rest of the time, so by the end of the day, you'd be more than ready to get out of there and go home. It can be quite trying for women. You can handle the hours, but to stay and do these other jobs and not be paid for the extra hours spent picking up all the shoes and all the purses and putting them away? Other retailers like Nordstrom's and Robinson's all have a separate cleanup crew that comes in at the end of the day to do that, but not Penneys.
"I was like, 'Why are they getting away with this?' People don't know who to complain to and they're fearful of retaliation, because these companies have ways of getting rid of you if they don't like you. Even though the law says you can't retaliate, they can and will retaliate in their subtle ways."
Merino lasted three years before her job was eliminated: "Federated Department Stores came in and took over. I'm pretty intuitive, so I saw that this was not going to be a good thing. They were putting self-service checkouts at the exit, so I saw the writing on the wall. Eventually the president came in and read a letter to us saying that Federated was eliminating cosmetics altogether. I asked, 'If there isn't another position available that pays the same, or you feel that we don't qualify for it, do we not have a job?' He said, 'That's right.' It was cold and bland like that.
After leaving Penneys, Merino found work with other retailers, but kept in touch with her former colleagues. She says, "I know plenty of people who used to work there or who still work there. The ladies who still work there say it's still going on. As I said, everyone who's working there is fearful of retaliation. They just can't afford to endanger their jobs.
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"I'm an activist, a political activist. I just don't like injustice. I feel that when so many are afraid to stop injustice, then someone has to just come forward and stop it! I think sometimes big companies think they're so powerful and the people below them are so scared that nothing will happen to them. Unless people speak out, it can't change. Sometimes we have to stand up for what we believe in."
And, Merino adds, she's going to send this story to everyone she knows.