Bryce Covert at ThinkProgress has been running an ongoing campaign to shame stores for opening on Thanksgiving and encourage shoppers to patronize retailers who will be remaining closed.
People should, of course, feel free to avoid Walmart, Target, and other open-on-holidays retailers if that's what they want to do. But the underlying notion that it would be systematically better for society if all stores closed — or followed the practice of three New England states and forced them to close — on Thanksgiving is a little ridiculous.
Working on Thanksgiving is nothing new
This morning, I went out for a little stroll before fiddling with the home page design. Out on my block I saw cab drivers and bus drivers working. I bought a coffee at Starbucks. Later I went to Union Station to get on a train to New York to see my family. Many other people are on the train with me. A minority of those people are working to keep the train running. Many of them seem to have bought some coffee or breakfast at Union Station while waiting. When we arrive at Penn Station, I'll either take a cab or the Subway to my dad's house. All of this will entail people working, and I've never heard anyone suggest that the national transportation system should be shut down on Thanksgiving as a matter of social justice.
The Bears will be playing the Lions laters, as will the Eagles and Cowboys, and the Seahawks and 49ers. The players will be working, as will any number of stadium support staff and broadcasters. These football games are a bit of a cherished American Thanksgiving tradition. As is the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade which, of course, is work for the many people involved in its production.
Movie theaters are also open. Indeed, though new films normally debut on Fridays, what happens on Thanksgiving week is that new movies come out on Wednesday so that fresh entertainment is available on the Thanksgiving day off. Many restaurants also open on Thanksgiving, to give those disinclined to cook a chance to eat and celebrate.
Last but by no means least, supermarkets are generally open on Thanksgiving. And who among us has not had the opportunity to be thankful for a few last-minute food purchases made necessary by poor planning or forgetfulness? Having (some) non-food retailers open alongside (some) entertainment options and (some) food retailers is hardly a dramatic break with existing precedent.
Jobs pay money — holiday jobs pay overtime
There are a lot of downsides to working on any given day, not just Thanksgiving. But generally speaking people show up for work for a pretty good reason. They pay you! This basic logic whereby working leads to money does not evaporate simply because it is traditional to consume turkey on the fourth Thursday in November. Covert praises stores that will be closed as "deciding to let their workers stay home." But there is no letting of anyone do anything about it. Stores that close on Thanksgiving are forcing their workers to skip a day on which they might otherwise be earning income. One could just as easily write that stores who are opening on Thanksgiving are "deciding to let their workers earn money" while the Petcos and GameStops of the world are refusing to.
Indeed, as Covert herself has noted at Walmart employees will receive holiday bonus pay if they work on Thanksgiving. People who would rather avoid a Thanksgiving shift can try to trade with someone who wants the extra pay. Unfortunately, the reality is that there will be some people who are made to work who would rather have the day off than the overtime pay. But if all stores were closed on Thanksgiving, there would be some people who get a day off and would rather be earning money. This is a tragic fact of life, and perhaps a good reason to hope for a utopian socialist future. But keeping stores closed on Thanksgiving won't usher in that utopia or resolve the fact that not everyone can be made happy.
Being poor is awful
Commentary on the alleged awfulness of working on Thanksgiving generally pivots rapidly to overall concern about the plight of low-wage retail workers. We should, indeed, be very concerned about the plight of the working poor. Poverty is awful. And we should take it seriously. A Walmart worker asked to work on Thanksgiving is being put in a much tougher position than, say, a TV news anchor.
On the other hand, lost wages due to your company deciding to shut down for the day are also much harder on a poor worker than a relatively privileged one. Which is just to say, again, that life is harder for the poor. A regulatory change doesn't fix that.
What would fix it would be for poor people to have more money. A more generous EITC would help, as would simply handing out cash. A Federal Reserve that fights for full employment rather than raising interest rates at the first sign of wage increases would help. Obamacare subsidies help. Upzoning would help. There are lots of ways to put more economic resources into the hands of low-wage retail workers. But closing stores doesn't do that.