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How I Get By: Two Weeks in the Life of a Target Employee

The 23-year-old is trying to be responsible. During the last semester, he worked nights five days a week at Target. On his days off, he went to class.

by Maxwell Strachan
30 January 2020, 6:02am

Collage by Vice Staff | Image via Getty

The college student doesn’t usually have days off, and not by choice. During the last semester, he typically studied in the mornings or took online classes, then worked nights five days a week at Target. On his two days off, he went to his on-campus classes.

“The workload is fairly massive,” he said.

The 23-year-old student is trying to be responsible. He didn’t come from money, and he doesn’t want his mother have to have to endure the stress of applying for a Parent PLUS Loan, he said. He didn’t want to have to apply for student loans either—that’s why he works full time at Target. Even still, he estimates he’ll have about $7,000 in debt by the time he graduates this summer, although that in and of itself feels like a certain kind of blessing.

“[It’s] nothing compared to what I've heard of some of my closest friends, the burden that they're going to be carrying,” he said.

Would you be willing to tell VICE about a week in your life? Fill out this form. In certain cases, we are willing to keep your identity anonymous.

The student works in the food department at Target, where he keeps track of inventory and makes sure the shelves are stocked. It sounds simple, he said, but it’s tougher than it looks. At $13 per hour, the pay isn’t too bad, and it’s a raise from the $12.15 per hour he made when he started. “It's just enough,” he said.

For the college student, just enough is a relative term. Soon after he first spoke to VICE, he had three dollars in his bank account and less than a fourth of a tank of gas in his car. A small mixup, like an issue with his mom’s car, had the potential to derail the family.

After the most recent semester finished, the student thought he might have a bit more free time, so he kept a work diary on and off for roughly two weeks.

In response to his diary, Target wrote in part, "We diligently and regularly measure our employees’ satisfaction in the workplace and encourage team members to have open dialogue with us at all levels of the organization." The entirety of the company's statement can be found at the bottom of this article.

Friday, December 13

My day started really early. I live away from my mom and my younger sibling. But my mom's car broke down a while ago and she still hasn't gotten it fixed. So, I had to wake up to drive about 20 minutes to pick up my younger sibling and drop them off at high school.

A side effect of having the sole working car in my family right now is bearing the responsibility of providing transportation. I have no money right now, and I have to somehow find a way to make $3 last until next week on essentially less than a fourth of a tank of gas. My mom is a housekeeper. She gets tips and occasionally she is able to help pitch in. My shift today at Target was 4:30pm to 12am, but they had us all stay about a half-hour later. Work wasn't all that awful. I checked the back to see if there's any market stuff that needs to go out to the floor. I refilled the milk, bananas, and the eggs. I did one-for-ones on all the grocery, which basically means replacing everything that was bought and filling all the shelves to capacity. And that took me a while.

I took my break at around 8pm for half an hour. They had cereal in the break room, which was nice. I brought two slices of pizza, my last two slices of pizza that I have in my fridge.

I've been working at Target about five months. The managers are very disconnected. It takes forever to get availability switched. I just put in my change of availability for the new semester. I have another coworker who also goes to my school who put in her availability a little while ago and they ignored it. Same thing that happened to me when I first started. It could be worse, but working in a department store, it takes a lot out of you. I feel like not enough people realize how much really goes on in a department store. What is just a stop-and-go trip to them is like an entire day for somebody else who works there.

I'm doing all this until I graduate, so that I won't have to work a dead-end job like Target, or at least that's the dream that you're fed. Though a lot of the people who I work with have bachelor's degrees and master's degrees. I remember I worked a short stint at Cost Plus World Market, and one of my people who worked there, he had a master's degree in literature. He’s been working there part-time since. I don't know, especially being a young black person, education is pushed on us because we already know how white felons are more likely to get a job than the average educated black person. Work twice as hard to get half of what they get, and all that.

And sometimes I wonder if it's worth it. And honestly, if I wasn't two semesters away from graduating from college, I probably would have dropped out by now. But quitting has never really been in me. Failure, definitely. But quitting? I just can't ever find it in myself to do that.

Saturday, December 14

I was woken up at around 9am this morning by a phone call from my mom. I called her back right away. She said that she needed a ride to work. Her cousin came over to her apartment yesterday and was able to jumpstart her car, but apparently it didn't start this time.

I told her that I have practically no gas right now, like barely enough to make it to work today. She said that if I get there, she'll be able to give me something. And I don't know how much “something” is, but I'll take it. So I hung up the phone and she calls back shortly later. Conveniently there was an on-call mechanic that was called to her apartment complex for somebody else who was just walking by, and gave her a jump on her battery. Apparently, the main thing is just her battery, which is fantastic because that's not too much of an expensive fix.

She said that she was able to get to work, but if she's not able to get to work or get home from work, she'll call me before I have to go to work at 4:30pm. She said that she'll try and be out no later than 3pm, and that I should just be on standby.

I haven't done any Christmas shopping yet. I don't know if she has. We haven't even put up the tree. When you grow up lower income, Christmas is a very stressful time of year, because not only are you working, but you have to spend more money. And if any of life's problems happen, that could put a dent in everything. It’s when you realize how little you actually have, which I feel awful for saying because the small family that I have here, I love them. But the whole I'm here slaving away at school, working full time is so I can have a better life.

Sunday, December 15

It is currently 2:17am. I'm just getting home. I was scheduled to work 4:30pm to 12am today on paper, and they made me stay until 1am knowing that I was also scheduled to work at 9 tomorrow morning—this morning, in seven hours. I brought this up with the supervisor and I was like, "Hey listen, I finished everything that I need to do. I work at 9 in the morning. Can I leave?" It was around maybe like 12:20am at this point, and he was like, "Yeah, you can leave at 1am like the rest of us." He let one woman go early because she worked at 8 the next morning. He said, "I have sympathy for that. But you know, 9am, you have to stay like the rest of us.”

It was a hectic day. The first thing I do as a closer is take all the “re-shop” from the back—which means putting everything that was returned back out to the floor. Then I fill the milk, bananas and the eggs. Morning crew left behind a whole U-boat of dry grocery that I had to put out. And then shortly after that FDC came, which is basically like the mid-day truck.

The morning is when all the dry grocery comes in and the mid-afternoon is when all the produce and the freezer stuff comes in. As a closing person for grocery, I'm in charge of making sure that all that goes into the right cooler, so that the morning crew can push it all out in the morning. Shipments come on these sturdy plastic black pallets that are approximately four-by-five feet. These pallets are stacked with boxes that contain wet groceries—produce, dairy, meats, frozen foods, etc. How these pallets are organized and how high they are stacked varies. I would say on average they are between 4-6 feet high, though sometimes they can be as tall as seven-feet high. They are transported using a pallet jack. There were six pallets today, which is not the biggest I've encountered, but pretty big to do on your own. My supervisor had to leave early so I pretty much did the entire six stacks by myself.

On Saturdays, we have ad take-down, which is when all the employees are responsible for taking down all the expired ads. We have deals nonstop and every week grocery has maybe 200 individual tags and signs alone. I have to start earlier than most because if I don't, I won't have any time to clean the whole department at the end of the night. The front of grocery to the back of grocery—I have to straighten up every single thing. Sometimes it gets done, sometimes it doesn't, and they're not too anal about it. Apparently I'm really good at it, but it's a lot. It still rarely ever gets completely done. I don't see how they expect anybody to get it all completely done. One person closing the grocery department every night doesn't seem reasonable to me. When I first got hired, my supervisor told me it's not even really supposed to be like that. One person really isn't supposed to be closing down the department, but since I've gotten to the point where I am doing it by myself, they haven't really bothered to schedule a second person.

My mom texted me telling me to call her during my lunch break, which I did. She was able to get a jump start on her car to get home from work, but she stopped at Pep Boys to get her car looked at. And they said that her battery's fine. It's probably some electrical circuiting or something they didn't give a formal diagnosis, but she can't start her car without a jump right now. She told me that she would need a ride to work in the morning. I told her that I couldn't because I also have to be at work at 9, and I'm not going to have time to give her a jump. I stopped by after work to give her my jumper cables. She knows someone in her apartment complex that could give her a jump in the morning.

She also lent me her card to give myself some gas, which always makes me feel like I'm still living back with her, you know? I hate to be dependent on her when she's also somewhat still dependent on me. But yeah, I put $15 of gas in there. It's not a full tank, but it's enough to last me till next week, and that's all I really need—something that will last me till next week. I gave her back her card when I came back in from getting gas. She asked me how much I put on there. I said, "15." She was like, "Did you get yourself something to eat?" I was like, "No. The deal is only for gas." And she said, "Oh, well I should have told you that you could have gotten yourself something to eat. I figured you've been working so hard recently. You are probably a little bit hungry.”

That felt sweet. To her own detriment, she's always put me and my younger sibling ahead of herself. I've always argued with her about the fact that we don't need her to put us before her. We need a healthy non-stressed mother, but there's only so much I can do with her about that.

Monday, December 16

It's 12:30pm. This is my fourth straight day of working. I worked 9am to 5:30pm yesterday and that was after working 4:30pm to 1am the day before. I work 4:30pm to 1am today. I pulled into my apartment from work yesterday and literally fell asleep in my car for about 20 or so minutes before even coming in. After, I called my mom to see what was up with her car, and she just got a new battery and that took out most of her money. Luckily we both get paid this week. She gets paid on Wednesday. I get paid on Friday. She offered to help me out with groceries, which I might have to take her up on.

I’ll just go ahead and explain my financial situation. My personal bills are as follows: I pay $550 in rent. I have a $300 car note on an '09 Honda Civic. Why would I put myself on a $300 car note? Because you need a car to get around this city, which is one of the biggest cities in the U.S. by total area. There's really no other option. I pay about $200 of insurance on that, and I cover the cost of my own phone bill, which is about $40 a month. So, saving money is a little bit difficult, obviously. In my family, saving money is kind of a luxury because either you're not making enough, or you are making enough, but that money always ends up having to go somewhere in case an emergency comes up like this car situation my mom's going through, which inevitably affects me saving because I have to shelve up more money trying to support her and my younger sibling. It kind of becomes, I don't know, just like a really vicious circle.

I think I'm going on two years owning that car now. It did give me one really big problem recently. Around Halloween time, the starter gave out on it. And the cost of that was probably about $500 repair on top of all the money I had to spend on Ubers getting to and from work and to class. That depleted all of my savings. So, I'm just kind of raw dogging it through my finances right now until next year when the tax refund comes in and my student aid refund hits. I'm also carrying about $2,000 of credit card debt.

The morning routine is a little bit different from the closing routine. Typically the routine is to just pull straight one-for-ones, because I don't have a particular section in grocery. I'm just kind of a floater. I do a little bit of everything. One of the people who works at market called out, so I instantly had to completely skip one-for-ones and just start pushing the truck that we had received that morning. And it was pretty much exclusively me doing it for the first couple of hours.

The thing about working at Target is that at any moment you can get called up to work one of the registers. No matter what you're doing, if you're not with a guest, you have to drop what you're doing and work a register. I got pulled maybe about three or so times, which makes it really difficult to finish any of the work you're supposed to get done.

When you work a certain amount of days in a row, everything just becomes a blur. You just autopilot yourself through it all. It isn't until you get off that you realize how much work you've done and how tired you actually are, you know? I didn't really eat lunch. I didn’t eat lunch actually. I still have about $3 in my bank account, which is enough to secure some eggs and some sardines. So I’m about to fuck that up.

I've done a fairly good job, luckily, of making myself not all that replaceable. I'm good enough at what I do, and am one of the few people in market who actually knows what they're doing. Me and the other people who've been in market longer have a lot of newer people that we have to train. There is literally no structure to the training. At both of my previous jobs, I experienced formal training. And I want to be that person for these newer employees, but it feels weird trying to teach people who you know are walking into an extremely flawed, very hectic system.

I feel like a lot of them aren't handling it very well, and I can't even really blame them. Just the back room alone, there are nothing but work hazards. Things are stacked twice the average person high. It's crowded, you can barely get through. Often, there's a really high risk of things falling on you if you're a smaller worker. Yesterday I had to help a female coworker of mine. She's like 5’3”, probably not even like 150 pounds. I had to help her lift something that she was responsible for lifting that was taller than me. We had to grab a ladder. It was like these two heavy, heavy boxes of toys. It's just stuff like that.

Saturday, December 21

It's been a minute. Things have just been a whirlwind. Wednesday began my two days off, and it was better than I thought it would be. I woke up and pretty much spent the entire day with my mom. My younger sibling wasn't in school at the time. And the reason I came over originally was because she's going to go help me do some grocery shopping because she got paid on Wednesday. She's been working a lot more lately, so she had money to spare. I appreciate it so much because, like I said, we struggle. The three of us, me and my mom and my younger sibling. I moved out this year, at the age of 23. I can't tell if it's made it worse or harder on them. Some people my age moved out the moment they turned 18, 19 years old. I always felt a little bit behind the ball about that, but not really. More people I know now still live with their parents. Millennial shit.

On Wednesdays, everything at the Salvation Army is 50 percent off. So we go to the Salvation Army and she goes out of her way to tell me to pick stuff out that I want, which felt nice. She's always been really good at doing the absolute best she could with me and my younger sibling. At the Salvation Army, we're paying close to nothing for this stuff and I’m happy with it. She still wants to make sure that I have clothes on my body. I love my mom.

By the time I got home, my tank was almost on E. The reason my mom was doing this is because I had zero money, like no money. And, I was on a fourth of a tank of gas. I hate saying that I do photography in my spare time, but it's just in my spare time. Wish I was doing it more. But my friend bought two of my pictures off of me and so I had a spare 60 bucks on me. And all that immediately had to go toward paying the back pay on my Adobe Suite, the Squarespace for my website, my Dropbox account that was about to be downgraded.

Sunday, December 22

Target's been on some bullshit lately. I was supposed to work 7am to 3pm on Friday. Two days before, my manager texts me. He’s like, "Hey, could you instead close on Friday?" We go back and forth about it, and ultimately I agree. He's like, "Great, I'll have you to come in to work 4:30pm to 1am instead." I'm like, "Okay, sweet. I get to party and have a little bit of time off afterwards to relieve a hangover before I go into work. This is lit. This is every young working person’s dream—to just be able to get fucked up every once in a while and sleep in.”

I do that. I get a call around 9am from Target on Friday. My team lead calls me like, "Hey, we were expecting you to come in at 7am. What happened?" I told her that my supervisor texted me about it. He told me that he would take care of it. He did not communicate to the higher-ups that I was going to be coming in at 4pm instead of 7pm. They still made me come in a lot earlier than I needed to, and it was rough. It's the last paying week before holiday season for a lot of people. So, a lot of people coming in for last-minute gifts.

I was on the floor with the trainee, so it was just me and the trainee for a very long part of the shift. And I'm trying to teach him while also managing the hectic stuff that's going on outside. I'm answering people's questions, I have to take care of the re-shop, because people keep on returning their food. I keep running up to the front. In most Targets, market is placed against one of the back walls, farthest away from the register. So I have to walk the entire length of the store often to grab stuff that people have returned. Because if you don't do that regularly at the end of the night, it's going to be overwhelming.

I'm pulling stock from the back, pushing it onto the floor, back-stocking, and it's a whole process. It's exhausting. It doesn't really sound like much, or maybe it does sound like much. It doesn't sound like that much to me when I say it, but the distance that you have to walk and the weight that you'd have to carry and the timeframe they need everything done in, it's fast-paced.

I do thrive in that environment, but the work can sometimes become very overwhelming where you're doing just a lot of things at once. Like you're helping a customer, and also you have to do one-for-ones. And then, when you just get through pulling a huge batch of one-for-ones, FDC gets here. So now I have to unload the truck and put things into their correct places. Sometimes, the pallets come in where there will be like meat at the bottom and produce at the top. So, those two things can't be stored together, so I have to downsize the pile. And very often it's only me working market and only me who knows how to do FDC. I'm the only person who really knows where everything goes in the coolers and the freezers at the store at mot times. So everything that gets pulled off, I have to move it, and sometimes the pallets are huge.

I'm 5’10” and they're sometimes taller than me. If I'm lucky, there'll be one person on the floor who can help me, or it comes really early in the day when there are more people.

Market is a huge section. It literally goes from one end of the store to the other. It has a lot of inventory to keep track of, and it always seems very overwhelming that they expect one person to do it. And luckily, I'm doing a good enough job at it to not get fired, but even I'm barely scraping by being able to do it on a day to day basis because it's just, I don't know, it's an overwhelming amount of work that never really completely gets done with one person.

I question if it's just not the right job for me. I mean it's not, obviously. I don't want to be working at Target for the rest of my life. No shade to anyone who does and actually does choose to, if that's what you love doing. If you love retail, more power to you. It's just really not for me, but it's a job. And, as far as jobs go, it's pretty bad, but it could be a lot worse.

Monday, December 23

It is approximately a quarter till 4am on what is now technically a Monday. It is two days until Christmas, and I don't feel very Christmas-y. I worked 6am to 2:30pm today. A 6am to 2:30pm shift is pretty simple. I like it because it goes by pretty fast. Basically all we have to do is pull one-for-ones and push the truck that comes in the morning, and that is literally it. The truck was abnormally large today. But we were just firing on all cylinders. My sleep cycle is all out of whack as you can tell by the fact that I'm sending this at almost 4 in the morning. I came home and took a shower. And, honestly, just kind of slept and stayed in bed all day—partially exhaustion, but it's also partially a depression nap. It was a depression nap. It's something that I struggle with, I'm not going to front. It makes it difficult to work as much as I do. It gives me a very weird relationship with work, because on one side, it's kind of a distraction. Work can be a distraction when it comes to a depressive episode. Especially when hours are picking up so much like this, you don't really have time to think about anything except for work. So, it kind of puts the person on the back burner, but it eats up so much time.

I don't really feel like people understand how much time 40 hours a week is. Sleeping becomes a privilege, and every bit of free time that you do manage to get has to be spent recovering. I have to spend time doing these dishes that I've been accumulating. I have to spend time taking care of this dog. I have to clean my surroundings. I have to feed myself. I have to cleanse myself with the little bit of free time that I have. And then by the end of it all, mentally and physically it just becomes a challenge to get done anything that you really want to do. It's probably a seasonal thing too because the holidays are coming up. I'm keeping it 100 with you, I haven't bought a single Christmas present. I don't think anyone in my immediate family really has. And by my immediate family, I just mean my mom and my younger sibling.

And, there's a weird comfort with that, because we haven't talked about it. The Christmas tree hasn't been put up this entire time, that’s the first year that’s happened. And, I feel like it's going to be okay. I've been working a lot more, like the next paycheck that I get is essentially going to have like at least like 77 or some hours of pay on it at least. So, I'll try to do something special for them then. But Christmas Day and the day after, I have off, and I also just kind of look forward to just spending that with them, whether or not there are gifts exchange or not. I just want to be with my family for a little bit.

Tuesday, December 24

It is Christmas Eve, going to be Christmas in half an hour. Today at Target I worked 4pm till 10:30pm. It was hectic, of course—Christmas Eve at Target during the holidays. It's weird because this time of year of working retail, it's scamming season. Big time scamming season, I experienced that at Target for the first time yesterday.

This one dude I was ringing up was trying to buy like $500 worth of like $50 prepaid Visa gift cards. And he said that his card wasn’t working, but that it’s a cash card and that I had to ring it up as cash. People do this so that no money actually gets charged to their card. That was a red flag immediately, and I called over a manager to help me out. I'm pretending like I haven't caught on because I've never been in this situation before. He reached his hand into the gift basket and took out the gift cards, and kind of sneaked off. But the manager called and canceled the cards before he can do anything with them.

It's wild, but also I get it. This is probably why I'm really bad for retail, because it's scamming season, and a lot of it is because people know that people are very vulnerable during this time of year. But also people need things during this time of year, and sometimes scamming is their only opportunity to make things happen. I don't really cast judgment on him for trying. Target is a multimillion dollar company. They have the insurance to cover like a $500 theft, which is probably how he rationalizes it. Dumb the way he went about it, but I can't blame the poor sucker for trying. But that's just me seeing both sides as I always try to do.

Tomorrow morning we head over to my mom's place. We're going to have dinner, probably see a movie. There's really not too much in the way of gifts. I definitely haven't been able to accumulate the money to get anything. One nice thing though: My roommate got me a blender. It's a small thing, but it means a lot. Because I could really use one. I really love smoothies, and she knows I've been trying to stay on top of my health and all that. So, I appreciate her a lot for that.

And that's mostly been it. At Target, we arrested like five people trying to shoplift today. Retail is a very wild culture. You really do get to see the worst of consumerism—from the scammers and shoplifters, to the people who are rude to you, to people really not caring that you just want to get home to your family just like they do. We closed at 10 o'clock and we had people in there up until about 10:15pm complaining about us closing early.

Other than that I've been holding up okay. I had been kind of dreading this next upcoming semester. I'm excited for it, but at the same time, I feel like I just need more time to prepare, because school ended, and then work picked up to fill in those gaps. So, I've had very little time to really relax, you know? It really hasn’t been a bit too much of a vacation.


In response to the contents of this diary, Target offered the following statement:

Target is committed to providing all team members with a rewarding work environment.

We provide store team members with a minimum hourly wage of $13 in addition to competitive benefits, merchandise and wellness discounts, flexible schedules and hands-on training. Last year, we invested millions of hours in paid training to help our team build skills and expertise so they can be successful in their jobs as well as their careers.

We offer a variety of schedules to meet the diverse needs of our team. This includes working with our team to get their input on when they’re available to work and building schedules that match their availability to the needs of our guests. We also offer tools for team members to trade or pick up shifts at their locations and don’t use on-call scheduling. Our team survey shows us that more than 80 percent of hourly team members believe Target “strives to be flexible in accommodating my schedule based on my needs and business needs.”

In addition, the safety of our team and guests is always our top priority. We have policies and practices in place to ensure we’re taking the appropriate measures to effectively train and provide resources to our team members to ensure their safety while they’re working at Target.

We diligently and regularly measure our employees’ satisfaction in the workplace and encourage team members to have open dialogue with us at all levels of the organization.

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

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How I Get By