For years, the Labor Department has operated a Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which targets companies with unsafe working conditions like manufacturers or construction firms with a high number of injuries or deaths.
In September, the department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration unit widened the scope of the program to include any type of company that willfully or repeatedly violated safety standards. The first to be added under the program’s expanded scope: Dollar General, one of the nation’s fastest-growing retailers.
Since January 2017, OSHA has inspected more than 270 Dollar General stores and found 111 instances of workplace safety violations. The agency has also imposed more than $15.5 million in penalties during that period, according to data provided by a White House official.
OSHA inspectors have found issues such as obstructed fire exits and boxes of merchandise cluttering the aisles or stacked precariously high.
In some cases, federal inspectors have gone into a store to demand that a hazard be fixed, only to find in a follow-up visit that the problem was still there, according to two federal officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the violations.
The fines represent a tiny fraction of the billions of dollars in sales that Dollar General generates every year. And until recently, the officials said, the company was not willing to engage with OSHA about resolving these issues broadly, and it has contested many of the penalties.
“What we have found time and time again at Dollar General stores is that there are obvious, preventable hazards that are putting workers at risk,” Douglas L. Parker, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said in an interview.
The company said that “we regularly review and refine our safety programs, and reinforce them through training, ongoing communication, recognition and accountability.”
“When we learn of situations where we have failed to live up to this commitment,” it added, “we work to timely address the issue and ensure that the company’s expectations regarding safety are clearly communicated, understood and implemented.”
OSHA and Dollar General are now in the very early stages of a settlement discussion to resolve the penalties and come up with a plan to improve certain conditions in the retailer’s stores, the two federal officials said. Dollar General did not comment on the settlement talks.
Dollar General, in many ways, is an obvious target for the Biden administration as it seeks to burnish its pro-worker image.
Based in Tennessee, Dollar General has been expanding its network of stores at a rapid clip, opening thousands of locations during the pandemic. With 19,000 stores in the United States, Dollar General operates twice as many locations as Walmart and Target combined.
Even as its sales and profits soar, Dollar General has faced mounting criticism from worker advocates and left-leaning think tanks over wages that are among the lowest in the retail and service industry and for failing to take basic precautions to prevent crime in its stores.
Despite the criticism, Dollar General remains a profitable juggernaut that has been filling a void in rural areas and impoverished urban neighborhoods, where often there aren’t many other retailers selling inexpensive food and household staples.
During the five-year period that OSHA has cited the company for violations, Dollar General’s share price has more than doubled.
“I am glad OSHA is not waiting for a tragedy to occur to document these hazards,” said Joseph McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University. “But at the same time what is being revealed by the numerous OSHA inspections and mounting fees is that Dollar General doesn’t care.”
Mr. McCartin said Dollar General was a case study in how OSHA’s leverage was limited by the size of the fines that Congress had authorized it to impose. OSHA can charge a company up to $15,600 per day for up to 30 days for failure to address an unsafe condition.
“When you have corporate scofflaws, which Dollar General has shown itself to be, the system needs to be strengthened,” Mr. McCartin said.
The safety issues go deeper than a few rogue stores, federal officials said in interviews. Dollar General’s business model relies on lightly staffed and relatively small box stores with high sales volume. Often there are not enough employees to unload a delivery truck and immediately stock the shelves, Mr. Parker said. That means inventory can linger in the aisles, creating hazards for employees and customers.
“A business model should not be built on violating the law,” Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to President Biden, said in an interview about OSHA’s findings on Dollar General. “The reality is that workers in this country are entitled to certain protections by law, and this administration will enforce that.”
Inclusion in the severe violators program means OSHA officials can inspect a store at random, even if the agency has not received a specific complaint about working conditions. Some of Dollar General’s stores are among 462 workplaces in that program.
The vast majority of Dollar General penalties have come in the past two years under the Biden administration. More broadly, Mr. Biden has bolstered OSHA’s enforcement by increasing its inspection staff by 20 percent.
The other large discount retailer, Dollar Tree, which also operates the Family Dollar chain, has also been cited repeatedly for safety issues. Since 2017, according to data provided by a White House official, Dollar Tree has been cited for 90 violations and fined $14 million, while Family Dollar has been cited 54 times and fined $5 million.
“A safe workplace for our associates is our highest priority,” a Dollar Tree spokeswoman said. “We are focused on maintaining a safe environment that complies with all health and safety regulations at our facilities. To that end, we continually enhance our safety programs and protocols.”
Dollar Tree, which is not in the severe violators program, has made some improvements to staffing and taken other measures, but it is still in discussions with OSHA about a more comprehensive safety plan, the two federal officials said.
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