Black Friday Has Become Black Thursday for Workers

America’s weak labor protections are on full display come Thanksgiving.

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IMAGE DISTRIBUTED FOR KMART - Customers shop for televisions in the Kmart electronics department as they look for doorbuster deals at the Addison Street store in Chicago on Thanksgiving Thursday, Nov. 22, 2012. Kmart was the first major retailer nationwide to kick off pre-Black Friday shopping on Thanksgiving morning at 6 a.m.

Yes, it's that time again. The Halloween candy has barely been moved off the shelves, but major retailers are already announcing their plans for Black Friday – the biggest retail date on the calendar. And, continuing a recent trend, more and more stores are turning Black Friday into Black Thursday, opening their doors right on Thanksgiving Day.

At the most extreme end of the spectrum, Kmart announced that it is going to open at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving and not close again until 11 p.m. on Black Friday. For those keeping score, that's 41 straight hours of shopping madness. Kmart has been opening at 6 a.m. on Thanksgiving for several years now, but this is the first time that it won't be closing for a few hours to let workers enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with their families.

And therein lies the problem, which is emblematic of America's larger shortcomings when it comes to labor. In order for the stores to be open, someone is going to have to be staffing them, presumably meaning that they are going to have to skip dinner with their friends or family.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Of course, some workers may volunteer for holiday duty (and will hopefully be paid a premium for doing so), but for many workers, taking time off, whether it be for a holiday, other important life events or simply because they are too sick to work, is an impossibility.

As the Center on Economic and Policy Research has noted in its "No Vacation Nation" report, "the United States is the only advanced economy that does not guarantee its workers any paid vacation time and is one of only a few rich countries that does not require employers to offer at least some paid holidays." Overall, "almost one in four Americans has no paid vacation (23 percent) and no paid holidays (23 percent)." The U.S. is also the only developed country that does not guarantee workers paid sick leave, though a host of cities and one state – Connecticut – have gone ahead and mandated paid sick leave on their own.

In fact, the U.S. has some of the globe's weakest labor protections, across the board. As University of Missouri-St. Louis Professor (and U.S. News blogger) Kenneth Thomas has found, "American workers enjoy the least protection out of all major economies in the world. Protections against individual firing, collective dismissals, and ability to get off temporary employment are as weak as they can be."

The practical upshot of this is workers are all too often forced to choose between spending time with their families or their own health (or the health of a sick child) and paying the bills that month. Time off work that higher-income employees take for granted becomes just another day on the job. (The lack of paid sick time also has profound public health effects, spreading disease and costing businesses productivity.)

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Are 'Black Friday' Christmas Sales Starting Too Early?]

Last year, scores of petitions popped up targeting the ever-earlier Thanksgiving openings at retailers including Walmart, Target, Best Buy and Sears. "I have worked at Target for six years and I really enjoy my job. Thanksgiving, though, is one of the three days us retail workers get off a year: a day most all of us spend with family we only get to see on that day," wrote one Target employee in a petition. "Target can take the high road and save Thanksgiving for employees like me and our families by saying no to ‘Thanksgiving Creep.'" For the record, Target is likely going to open for its Black Friday sales at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving this year.

But Thanksgiving creep is just a small portion of a larger problem when it comes to the exploitation of low-income workers, those who toil for wages that don't get them above the poverty line during hours they can't control and with no guarantee that, should something tragic befall them or their family, they can get time off to take care of it.

So come Thanksgiving, over beer, turkey and football, perhaps spare a thought for those workers who, instead of being with their families, have to be in a big box store, stocking the shelves. And then perhaps do what you can to convince Congress that every American, no matter where she works, deserves time off now and again.

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