Winter months bring challenges for small businesses and student employees

UMKC students working retail or service during the holidays are often left saying humbug by the end of the ordeal. (Visit KC)

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The holiday season injects chaos into every aspect of life. Businesses change hours and workers request time off to spend with family or on final exams and papers. Both employees and employers deal with the season’s strain.

“Holidays create unexpected drops in revenue for small shops,” said Dontavious Young, a UMKC graduate and founder of Equal Minded Cafe on Troost. “They are not great for a business like ours, but the huge restaurants that stay open benefit greatly from holiday traffic.”

The most wonderful time of the year doesn’t treat everyone equally. At-will employees, in particular, can face difficulties during the holidays. These employees, who don’t have a contract and aren’t part of a union, can be fired for almost any reason. Docking pay and other forms of discipline are commonly used on employees that refuse to work holidays.

If a worker wants to protect their rights in the workplace, they need to be knowledgeable about what employers can ask of them and what discipline they could face. This is increasingly important for students who continue to make up more of the nation’s workforce. As recently as 2018, the National Center for Education Statistics found that over 40% of full-time college students were employed. 

“I think it’s a real shame that students don’t know their rights,” said Judy Ancel, former director of the Institute of Labor Studies at UMKC. “They should know their rights and use them to stand up for themselves because nobody else is going to.”

Ancel served as the director of the labor studies program at UMKC since 1988, but she left UMKC when the program was suspended in 2017 due to budget cuts. As a result, access to information has been limited, specifically on laws and practices that could protect students from abuse in their workplace.

For students, the holidays mean the end of the semester and the start of finals. But nobody is immune to the stresses of the holiday season. Faculty can also find themselves under equal amounts of pressure, as they will need to submit final grades quickly.

“If you don’t turn in your grades, then you’re going to get docked,” said Ancel. “There are various penalties for professors who turn in their grades late.”

Currently, labor laws are not strong enough to protect family gatherings or study time. At-will employees have no right to time off for family and school events, nor do they qualify for extra pay for working holidays.

For some students like Erick Nicolas, needing time off can end in unemployment. Nicolas said that because he had to attend several events for school and his job schedule wouldn’t accommodate, he was ultimately let go.

“I was upset because instead of talking to me about the situation and giving me a warning they just decided to let me go,” said Nicolas, a criminal justice major at UMKC. “I’m a hard worker, I don’t cause any problems and I always try to do my best when it comes to working.”

When rent, school payments or a hospital bill is on the line, deciding between work and school can become an impossible choice. Ancel said that the key for workers like Nicolas is to get help.

“If they are working in retail or fast food, they should call Stand Up KC,” Ancel said about student workers facing unfair labor practices. “There are a lot of students in that organization, and they support each other.”

Stand Up KC is an organization of retail and fast food workers fighting for fair wages and equal treatment in the workplace. If you are interested in learning more about labor in Kansas City, then check out the Heartland Labor Forum on 90.1 KKFI.

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