In January of 2021, a congratulatory letter from the corporate office of Dollar General arrived for Mary Gundel, recognizing her as one of their top-performing employees. With the letter, she was awarded a badge proclaiming her as being in the “DG: Top 5%.” Gundel was delighted by the acknowledgment of her commitment and effort.
The letter ended with, “Wear it proudly,” which she did. The badge was a prized addition to her Dollar General uniform, positioned alongside her name tag.
Always fascinated by the unpredictable and exciting nature of her job as the store manager in Tampa, Florida, Gundel had found satisfaction in challenges like handling aggressive customers and tackling shoplifters. She stated that she earned an annual salary of approximately $51,000, which was well above the median income in the area.
However, managing the store did come with its share of difficulties, such as dealing with the scramble of sorting out boxes from unexpected deliveries, handling customer complaints about products being out of stock, and running the store alone due to limited staffing hours.
On March 28th, amidst her everyday tasks at the cash register and tagging clothes, Gundel, 33, decided to record a video. This led to a six-part series, “Retail Store Manager Life,” in which she revealed the reality of working conditions within the rapidly-growing retail chain – a common sight in rural areas.
While speaking into her camera, she admitted, “Technically, I could get into a lot of trouble for discussing this. But something has to change or they will end up losing a lot of people.”
Her gripping exposé on TikTok went viral, with one of her videos reaching over 1.8 million views.
Following the popularity of her videos, Gundel quickly became a vocal critic of Dollar General – a platform which led to her dismissal a week after posting her first critique. However, her bold step inspired other Dollar General managers, many of whom were women managing stores in lower-income areas, to come forward and share their experiences on TikTok.
“It’s exhausting,” said a woman, who identified herself as a 24-year-old store manager but chose to remain anonymous, “I want my life back.”
Another unidentified woman revealed that she was working alone due to labor cuts and said on TikTok, “I was afraid to post this until now.” She added that she was deciding to quit, inspired by Ms. Gundel’s videos.
In response, Dollar General stated, “We encourage open communication among our team and routinely conduct engagement surveys for continual improvement, including identifying and addressing concerns. We learn and improve from situations when an employee feels we have not met these objectives.” They added, “While we do not agree with all of Ms. Gundel’s statements, we are taking them into account.”
Undeterred, Ms. Gundel chose to continue the discussion, transforming her TikTok page into a daily platform for advocating changes within the company. She encourages Dollar General employees to join her “movement” and is fighting for their rights to form a union.
To collaborate better, she announces a newly ‘elected spokesperson’ from various states every day on TikTok. All these spokespersons are women who are current or former Dollar General employees, and most of them prefer to remain anonymous due to fear of jeopardizing their jobs.
Social media has empowered employees like Gundel to rally their peers and be recognized as beacons of hope for workers’ rights in the post-pandemic era. Her boldness to speak out has allowed others to relate to her experience.
“There’s only so much you can take when you’re continually under-appreciated,” she asserted.
When Gundel first started working at Dollar General in Georgia three years ago, she envisaged a long career with the company. A mother of three children – one with autism – she and her husband, who works for a defense contractor, relocated to Tampa for her role as a Dollar General store manager, just a month before the pandemic hit in 2020.
According to Gundel, the store had around 198 hours per week to allocate to a staff team of about seven. However, by the end of March the following year, the staffing hours were reduced to 130, resulting in long working hours and her running the store alone for extended periods.
In one of her TikTok videos, she decided to respond to customer complaints about disorganized stores and the lack of stocked items. She defended the employees, stating that the problem lied with the higher-ups in the company who needed to fund stores adequately.
Her videos struck a chord with other employees facing similar issues. For example, Crystal McBride, a woman who had been fired from a Dollar General store in Utah, had posted a video of her own, addressing the trash problem in her store.
McBride stated in an interview that she was not intimidated by the prospect of losing her job, saying, “I will not be silenced.” Neither was Gundel. With her online following growing, she continued posting videos, describing dangerous incidents she had experienced, such as a customer pulling a knife on her, and another trying to drag her out of her car window in the store’s parking lot.
Gundel protested against Dollar General’s approach of deflecting serious issues, creating the hashtag #PutInATicket. After being informed about her TikTok videos by her boss, she was advised to remove them. However, she stood her ground and refused to do so, stating that it would be against her morals and integrity.
She had a conversation with one of the senior executives who had awarded her the “DG: 5%” pin. However, when Gundel insisted on recording the call for her protection, the executive, who was unwilling to be recorded, ended the call quickly. Shortly thereafter, on April 1st, she was fired.
Despite losing her job, Gundel continues to post regular videos and has recently started working as a driver for Uber and Lyft.
Her efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. A woman shopping in a Florida Dollar General gave credit to Gundel’s courageous stand, stating that the store had significantly improved its organization and its stock level.
The customer heartily acknowledged Gundel’s sacrifice for catalysing the change, saying, “Look at the results. It’s like a whole new store. Thank you, Mary. Your voice was heard and your job wasn’t lost in vain. I’m proud to shop at Dollar General now.”
Audio production by Tally Abecassis.
“How a TikTok video of a Dollar General employee became viral”