Temperatures have spiked at over 93 degrees in the store since the air conditioning broke down weeks ago, employees say.
Temperatures reached 112 degrees in Phoenix on Monday. Inside a Phoenix Family Dollar store, the thermostat displayed 92.
It wasn’t yet 11 a.m. And it was only going to get hotter for employees who have worked without air conditioning for the past three weeks.
“They’re saying it could take another couple of weeks to fix,” store employee Andrea Thundercloud said Monday. “It’s been really, really hot in there. We’ve had lots of customers complain. We’ve told them to go to corporate, and so far nothing’s been done.”
Employees, customers and vendors at the bargain store near 67th Avenue and Van Buren Street described sweat-box conditions that have caused some to pass out and vomit from the heat.
To say nothing of the smell coming from the freezer, which employees say stopped working long enough to defrost frozen food earlier this month.
Unlike the situation with the air conditioning, employees said the freezer was repaired quickly. Employees said the freezer wasn’t emptied and restocked. The old items were refrozen and remain on display, although customers are told it’s not for sale.
Fans positioned at the front and back of the store circulated the stink of spoiled food Monday, sending puffs of hot air up and down aisles jammed with merchandise.
Slow response from company
Family Dollar, which is headquartered in North Carolina, did not respond to multiple emails this week. Calls to the corporate offices were not answered. A number listed as the company’s “single point of contact” for employees also went unanswered, leaving callers on hold for an hour or more.
Family Dollar is owned by Dollar Tree, a publicly traded Fortune 500 company based in Virginia, which paid $8.5 billion for the chain in 2015.
On Wednesday, Dollar Tree responded with a statement from Kayleigh Painter, manager of investor and media relations. “We are aware of the situation and are in the process of resolving the issue as soon as possible,” the statement said.
There are about 8,000 Family Dollar Stores nationwide. The company’s website indicates at least 40 stores are located within 25 miles of downtown Phoenix. Calls to local store numbers disconnected after digitally shuffling callers through a menu of options.
According to market analysts, Dollar Store saw the acquisition as a way to penetrate deeper into low-income communities.
Dollar Tree found itself struggling with the new stores, which proved to be not much of a bargain. in March, the retailer announced it would close 390 Family Dollar stores and rebrand 200 others.
The manager of the 67th Avenue Family Dollar store, wiping sweat from his face with the back of his hand, referred all questions to corporate managers, saying he was not allowed to comment.
Activist fights for store employees
Community activist Yolanda Medina has plenty to say. Employees started reaching out for help about two weeks ago, when temperatures in Phoenix climbed toward 110 degrees. She said she was shocked to learn about the conditions.
“I find it very upsetting, especially living in Arizona, and now with excessive heat warnings,” Medina said. “I don’t feel it’s right for workers to be working in such conditions.”
Medina said many employees are afraid they will lose their jobs if they publicly complain. She contacted The Arizona Republic’s Call for Action team on their behalf.
The stand-alone store employs at least six people and has remained open from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m. despite the lack of air conditioning.
“The employees just wanted help … they wanted support in getting hold of corporate,” she said. “I want management to listen to the people working for them and treat them as human beings.”
The threat of media exposure prompted Family Dollar to take action last week. Employees said after a local TV station made inquiries about the situation, a repair crew got the air conditioner running again. The TV station never ran a story. And a day later, the unit choked out its last breath of cool air.
Medina said as soon as the company thought the media lost interest, managers began telling employees it could be weeks before the unit would be up and running.
Employees were told there was “no budget” for air repairs and they just would have to deal with the heat, Medina said.
Medina said corporate representatives gave her the runaround. She said she was transferred from one phone line to another and when she finally reached a real person, she was told to file a complaint online.
She did, and encouraged customers and residents to do the same. She posted the company’s contact information on Facebook and other social media accounts along with descriptions about what employees were experiencing.
“Nothing,” Medina said. “I got no response. Not even via email.”
No heat standard for businesses
The Industrial Commission of Arizona, which regulates employment laws in the state, does not have specific standards about heat. Agency spokesman Trevor Laky said it is critical employees have access to water, rest and shade.
That does not mean regulators won’t investigate complaints of hot working conditions.
“If any employee feels like they are working in dangerous conditions, they need to contact us immediately,” Laky said.
‘It’s going to get even hotter’
A technician at the store Monday confirmed the thermostat was broken. Randy Philpot, a refrigeration technician with Artic Mechanical, said he’s made more than one service call to the store.
“It’s hot in the whole store, it’s like 90-something degrees,” Philpot said, towel flung over his shoulder to mop up sweat. “And it’s going to get even hotter. It’s supposed to be 113 today.”
Thundercloud, who started working at the store four weeks ago, said she has gotten sick from working in the heat.
“We have fans up in the front but we have to be constantly moving, stocking shelves and things like that,” she said. “We have an employee who has a heart condition and it’s been hard on her. She’s gotten sick a couple of times. It’s been hard on me. I came home a couple of times and threw up because it’s been so hot in there.”
Thundercloud said the freezer breakdown made the situation even worse.
“Everything defrosted and they fixed (it), and everything refroze again,” she said. “Everything is just sitting in the freezer, so everything stinks and smells really bad.”
But the smell is not the only thing that rankles Thundercloud.
“It stinks that they don’t care enough about their employees to fix it,” she said, adding that repairs shouldn’t take more than a month. “For it to take this long, it’s crazy.”
Thundercloud, who relies on the job to help support her four children, said she is reconsidering her employment at Family Dollar.
“If this is how they treat their employees, that they don’t care enough, it’s not worth working there.”
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