This is Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot....
....and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
In the story of Mary Gundel and her TikTok, it all comes down to March 28th. Before that date, Mary’s TikTok is about a lot of things in her everyday life, going to the zoo with her family.
Mary Gundel: Where’s the hippo at? Oh he’s over there sunbathing.
…DIY hair extensions
MG: It feels really good for it being synthetic. It is a little shiny, but we can tone that down with some dry shampoo.
And relationship drama
MG: I know we've had our differences and I know we've had our ups and downs and I know we have both done and said some fucked up shit.
After March 28th, it becomes all about one thing: the behemoth American convenience store, Dollar General, where Mary was employed for nearly 3 and a half years as a store manager.
MG: Well it’s another fine morning here at 5am in the mornin’
On that day Mary was working in her store alone, as she often was, and she responded to a TikTok user complaining about the state of their local Dollar General, with its disorganized aisles and out of stock items.
MG: So let me give you a little bit of insight into why that store probably looks like that. A lot of the time it’s not a lack of employees working. It’s not the store manager not doing their job. It’s the simple fact that the store manager probably just fucking gave up because they’re tired of it.
Then Mary decided to go in.
MG: So this is going to be part two of my retail series
She made six more videos, touring her store.
MG: Your boss breathing down your back, wondering ‘why isn’t this done, why isn’t this done, why isn’t this done’
She talked about low pay, the company cutting hours, and how she worked constantly to keep the store running.
MG: I am always here. I basically live here. Even my customers say it when they see me. They wonder when I'm actually going to get a day off. I have had my crew literally kick me out of the store and tell me to go home because I am here so much
And she talked about how requests to her bosses to improve conditions had gone unanswered… When something goes wrong at a Dollar General store, like a missed delivery or a broken door or a robbery, employees are told to “put in a ticket.”
MG: What the fuck is a ticket gonna do?
Mary’s videos went viral…
MG: Wow guys, holy shit
Hundreds of thousands of views within a single day…
MG: I did not for one second believe that these videos would blow the fuck up like they did
She was fired three days later, on April 1st. But the hashtag “Put in a ticket” became a rallying cry.
I know there's this some weird ass shit. Does anybody know the hashtag put in a ticket?
I just wanted to come on here for a minute and officially put in hashtag put in a ticket.
I don’t know if ya’ll are following this Dollar General drama or not, hashtag put in a ticket.
Well, Hey, y'all, let's talk about Dollar General and their corporate greed.
And welcome back to another episode of exposing Dollar General and their corporate slavery.
Listen to your people because times they are changing, honey.
In the past few months Dollar General employees have connected and staged walkouts.
Dollar General did not respond to our request for comment by deadline, but in previous statements, the company representatives have said they don’t agree with all of Mary’s characterizations of her workplace, but that they are listening to employee feedback.
I wanted to talk to Mary Gundel about getting all this started on TikTok.
Anna Sale: And are you on your way to your car now?
MG: Yes, I am now in my car.
AS: You’re in your car– you're in your personal recording studio?
MG: Yes ma’am
When I reached Mary she had just attended an in person “Put in a Ticket” rally in central Tennessee where Dollar General shareholders were having their annual meeting. She was now back in her home in Tampa, Florida. It had been a 10-plus hour trip both ways.
MG: I drove up with my old assistant manager. She actually just left Dollar General last week, my old sales associate Faith, and my daughter, Lily,
AS: Your daughter, Lily. How old is your daughter LIly?
MG: She is 17.
AS: So it's four women, three of whom used to work together. And does Faith, does she still work at Dollar General?
MG: Uh, no, she actually left the week that I was terminated. My entire team that actually worked with me at that store no longer works for the company at all.
AS: Did they quit or were they fired?
MG: Uh, they all quit.
AS: Can you describe to me when you were on the road, the four of you? Like, what was the vibe in the car? What was the road trip like?
MG: Honestly, everybody slept. And I drove. Um, because we left, we left at like five o'clock in the morning.
AS: I see.
MG: And I was driving and, you know, I just let 'em sleep. It was cool. I was just jamming to my music. Once we got to Atlanta and we stopped for lunch and everything, after that, we changed our clothes because, you know, we were in nightclothes cause we left so early and we're like, we just want to be comfy. So we changed at the local McDonald's to proper attire.
Joining Mary at the rally were current and former Dollar General workers, but also employees from other big retailers like Family Dollar, Dollar Tree and Amazon. They were calling on Dollar General to improve working conditions and raise wages, which, according to a 2020 survey, are among the lowest among US major retailers.
It was a protest, but also like a big party.
MG: We were holding signs and yelling and making noise. We also had you know, a band that was out there playing. And so at the same time as we're chanting, and we're saying our demands for the shareholders inside that building. We’re dancing and laughing and having a great time with everyone that was there.
AS: When you bring so many different kinds of people together, what kind of music do you choose? What kind of band was it?
MG: Um, we actually had a brass band from New Orleans.
AS: Oh, that's the right choice.
Mary was not the first person in her family to work at a corporate chain or in retail. Her mother was a district manager at a Waffle House and her grandmother worked at a gift shop at the Kennedy Space Center.
MG: The freeze dried ice cream, I grew up eating a lot of that.
Mary grew up and went to school in Titusville Florida, a town on the Eastern shore across from the space center. Her high school was even called Astronaut high school. But she didn’t always live with her immediate family, she moved around…
MG: And then my grandmother and then foster care and then back to my mother and, you know, so I was, I had a really rough childhood growing up. And I remember how that felt as a, as a little girl feeling like nobody ever, nobody cared, nobody wanted me, I was just a problem.
AS: And after high school what were you thinking you most wanted to do?
MG: Honestly at that point I wasn’t really thinking about what I wanted to do as per a career or a job. I was a young mother. I had my daughter when I was 16 years old, um, with my ex-husband, we were high school sweethearts. And at that time, you know, we were, you know, just trying to make it. We were young parents. Um, you know, we moved out on our own from our parents’ residence very young. And so we've had a pretty, a pretty tough life, him and I, growing up and then trying to raise our children as we go. And we had our son when I turned 18. So we had two children before I was even 20 years old. Um, I did finish high school, so I did graduate, which was nice.
AS: And did you stay in a traditional high school environment? Like how did you do childcare?
MG: Um, yes, I did actually. They have what they called the ‘yes program’. And it's basically a work at your own pace kind of program. So that way I was in one class, um, all day instead of seven, trying to run all over the high school. And then they also had daycare at the high school.
AS: Was that your daughter, Lily, who was on the road trip with you?
AS: Okay. You all have– you all have done some stuff together.
After high school, Mary got her associates degree in psychology, but she and her husband ended up working a lot of different jobs to make money. At first he worked construction and she was a kitchen dietician at a senior home
MG: We always had to work opposite schedules. So that way somebody was always at home with, you know, Lily and my son. And that's basically how we did it for so many years where, you know, I was morning, he was night or he was morning, I was night. I mean, it was rough, but we made it happen.
…and then her husband got a job at a local Sonic, the fast food chain, and suggested she talk to the manager and try to get a job there too
MG: I went up there and I talked to him and, you know, I was hired on the spot. And within a month I was basically put into a assistant manager position with the company. and then slowly but surely I was, you know, basically running the place.
AS: Wow. Um, is that like part of your personality, like since you started working are you kind of somebody who just like becomes the person who runs the place pretty quickly?
MG: Yes. I don't know why. it just happens that way.
AS: What do you think it is? How would you describe, like, what is it about you? Are you just, is it because you had to take care of yourself as a kid and so you’re really like self-sufficient and know what it takes? Or what do you think it is?
MG: I think it might just be my drive. It might be my willingness to learn. Um, I'm very open-minded and I, I catch on really quickly and I like to help people. So when I see, you know, my boss who, at Sonic for instance, Zoe, uh, she was an older lady and she had some medical issues and things like that, and stress all the time about, oh man, I've got to get inventory done you know. And, I knew that she wasn't feeling well and I knew she was going through stuff and I'm like, you know what Zoe, don't worry about it. I'll do it. And since then, it just became, okay, well that's now Mary's job, every Sunday now Mary does inventory, let me help you. And then of course, with like the alarm systems and things like that going off at night, she lives 45 minutes away. I live 10 minutes down the road and I'm like, well, Zoe, you know, just have them call me. I can get there a lot faster than you can. You know? So I've always just been that type of person that wants to help. Like if I see someone struggling, I want to help you, let me help you make your job easier.
AS: When you were like – those years you were working at Sonic and, and kind of managing all those things and managing your household, managing the schedule so everything worked together. Um, how, how would you describe your politics?
MG: I'm not even going to lie. I have been a registered voter since I was 18 years old and I have never cast a single ballot.
AS: Mary, is that true?
MG: That is true.
AS: You've never, ever, ever voted. And you live in Florida, the state that gets to decide the presidency, like, and you just haven't done it.
MG: Yes ma’am. I have never done it. Um, you know, I'm just one person. I never felt like I could make a difference anywhere. No one has ever made me feel like I was important, you know, to be able to make a big decision like that or that my voice was ever important, so, you know, me putting my name on a ballot card, I mean, you know, does that mean that, you know, my voice is actually getting heard? You know, I don't know.
AS: Do you think you'll vote in the next election?
MG: Uh, I just might. I just might. I mean, after this, when I posted my videos and everything and how big it's gotten, I see exactly how big it actually can be and how one person can make a difference.
AS: Yeah. But the other thing that I think, Mary, is that it's not actually out of pattern for you. Like you've been changing the lives of people you've worked with and shown up for them and made a difference, but it just, nobody publicly was noticing like nobody knew what you were doing for Zoe at Sonic. You know?
MG: Yeah. Well, I mean the district manager Cole did.
MG: He did quite a few times. He was like, he was, he came in one morning and he was like, good morning, Mary. I'm like, good morning. He was like, where's Zoe? And I'm like, I don't know. He's like oh okay. And then he left and then he's like, all right, well, I'll see you later. And then he came back later that night, it was like nine o'clock at night. And he’s like you're still here? And I'm like, yeah. He's like you opened this morning. Didn't you? I'm like, yeah. And he's like, why– he's like, why aren't you home with your, you know, your, your kids and I'm like well because. I said, Zoe called, you know, said that she wasn't gonna be able to make it in today. And you know, the person called out tonight. So I'm just, you know, I'm here, and I was like I have to open tomorrow morning too. So I'll be here, 6:00 AM.
AS: Did he give you a raise on the spot?
MG: Yep, he did.
AS: Really? For real?
MG: Yes, yes he did.
AS: All right. That was a cynical question for me. Go– go, Cole, he did the right thing.
MG: Yeah. That's where I got my additional 50 cents. So at that point I was making 10.50.
AS: You're describing, you're describing, like you've had a busy adulthood, like you've been raising kids, you've been working, you've been managing workplaces. You've been managing households, figuring out how it all works. you know how to keep it all going and how to take care of everybody in your unit, whether in your workplace or in your family it seems. Um, but I do want to ask you something I noticed about you when I, when I see your TikTok videos, like you take care of yourself. You, you have beautiful nails. You like, like you have beautiful hair. Like how have you fit that into everything else?
MG: Honestly, I barely have time.
AS: And when did that start? Like, have you like, just see how, when did you start like being like, you know what my nails need to be done? I need my hair to look right.
MG: I'd say over the last, um, year or two.
AS: Oh, really recent?
MG: Um, yes, yes really recent. Because I, I I've had some, um, difficult things happen in my life, with my ex-husband of 12 years. And I, I don't want to say that I was a victim of domestic abuse because I wasn't. Um, but I was definitely manipulated and molded into a person that I wasn't. Um, within that relationship, I was not allowed to express myself. I was not allowed to use heat on my hair. I was not allowed to color my hair. I was not allowed to wear certain things. if I did wear a dress, I had to have shorts underneath, my dress had to be past my knees. I was not allowed to wear makeup, very often. And, uh, so once that relationship ended, I kind of went on a journey the last six years since my marriage ended to find myself again, uh, and it was kind of hard for me to try to get out of my shell because some of the things that I would do, I feel uncomfortable. Like the first time I used a curling iron on my hair, after my marriage ended, I was waiting to get yelled at. Um, so I would say that transition has definitely bloomed full force over the last two years, because now I am more comfortable and confident being able to do those things for myself, that I have never been able to do my entire life.
AS: It's your freedom.
Coming up, we talk about starting a new job at Dollar General, and what led Mary to say enough is enough…
MG: Honestly, I've never even thought about a union. when all of this happened. And I started doing research and all of that on my own, I was just like, wow, like, this is what these people need.
Like many of you, we're thinking a lot about how Roe vs. Wade may change in the United States in a few weeks from now, when the Supreme Court is expected to release their latest ruling on abortion. If it is consistent with the draft opinion that circulated in early May, the United States may have a totally changed legal landscape, different than anything I’ve known in my lifetime…
And so we are wondering from you: are you doing anything differently, right now? Are you buying emergency contraception to store up in your closet? Are you talking about birth control more explicitly with partners… or people you love of child-bearing age? I talked to someone recently who’d decided to let go of 2 embryos that were in frozen storage after IVF…it was a tough decision, but she wanted to make sure she and her partner got to decide, not some change in the legal framework.
We particularly want to hear from you if you live in a state where local laws will make abortion more restricted than the Supreme Court currently allows. Or maybe you’ve had to travel for an abortion or reproductive health care already, even with Roe in place, what was that like? Or if you grew up in the US when abortion not protected by the Supreme Court, what are the stories you want a new generation to hear?
Record a short voice memo and send it to us, tell us what you are doing, and what you are talking about, Email us at email@example.com.
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Mary Gundel got divorced in 2015, and found herself a single mom with three kids. Her youngest son was diagnosed with autism right as that marriage was ending. He was four, and Mary took a job working from home doing IT calls for Direct TV to keep an eye on him. It was hard and lonely. On her first New Year's Eve alone, she found herself perusing an online chatroom.
MG: It used to be like Lost Cherry or something like that and now I think it’s Cherry Cap.
She wanted to make a connection.
MG: I was sitting at home and my kids were, you know, obviously in bed. It’s New Year's and I'm lonely and I'm sad and I'm still crying like every day at this point. Um, my husband, my current husband, you know, he was on there and, uh, I, you know, just wrote in, you know, his little chat and I was like, ‘hi,’ you know, just saying hi to everybody. And he ended up writing me back and so we started talking that night. So we spent New – our first New Year’s together on the video chat, and the next morning I woke up to a ‘good morning beautiful, I hope you have a wonderful day. I'm off to work, you know, hopefully we can talk later.’
AS: I see.
MG: And that was basically where that began. And so he was kind of my rock and my friend and he was kind of my savior.
AS: I just want to pause and acknowledge Lost Cherry is quite a name.
In a couple of weeks Mary’s new love interest flew from Colorado where he lived and came and visited her in Georgia. She introduced him to close friends who gave him the seal of approval.
MG: He was like ‘I can’t imagine my life without you at this point’ and he’s just like, ‘it’s crazy,’ and by the end of April he bought a one way ticket and moved out to Georgia to be with me.
Her kids liked him too.
MG: My youngest son who is autistic doesn’t you know, know anybody else as dad.
They married in 2018…and a year later, Mary got her first job at a Dollar General in Georgia. She was hired as a store manager, and she says one of the first things she noticed was the lack of official training.
MG: I didn't even know what I was doing. I mean, like my team at that store had to show me their boss, how to check in a vendor, how to run the register and do a return.
…But Mary’s store thrived…she was eventually moved to a Dollar General in Tampa…in a neighborhood where Mary did not always feel safe in the store.
MG: It was so bad. It was every day. I was calling the cops basically every single day for, you know, people loading up bags or, you know, loading stuff into a cart and just walking out the door. Uh, I was threatened with a knife by a customer that was cussing out my cashier because I stepped in between the cashier and them to remove her from the situation, because she was basically in tears. And I would much rather take the brunt of that because I'm the manager and, you know, I'll deal with it. Um I was sexually assaulted in my car when I was getting ready to leave the building.
AS: What do you mean?
MG: Um, I was getting ready to leave. That store closed at 10 o'clock at night. And so, as I was getting ready to pull out of the parking lot, a gentleman pulled into the parking lot. And came over to my car and reached in my window. And one hand went straight down my shirt and the other one grabbed the back of my head, like my hair. And he was trying to pull me through my window.
AS: Oh my goodness. And what, what were you told to do by your managers when there was something violent happening?
MG: Uh, well of course you call the cops and you know, you put it in a ticket. Basically letting corporate know that we're having issues with, you know, violent customers in our location. And we're having issues with shoplifting in our stores and stuff like that, because they say the more tickets we put in on the same situation, the more it lets corporate know. So that way they can address and fix the problem. So every time someone was to shoplift in my store, I was supposed to put in a ticket. Every single time I got threatened, I was supposed to put in a ticket.
After Mary was assaulted she told her boss she was quitting. He told her he’d move her to a bigger store in a better part of town. This store had produce, which meant more deliveries and more responsibility, and Mary was excited.
She had 7 employees to manage and 198 hours to pay out. The catch? This new store had been neglected and Mary had a lot to get done to bring it up to her standards
MG: Three weeks, we had it basically completely cleaned up. There was no more boxes in the aisles. No more rolltainers on the floor. The aisles were finally clean and clear–
AS: What did you say on the floor?
MG: Uh, rolltainers, they’re the metal carts with all the product in it.
AS: I see. I see.
MG: Yeah. Um, and so within those first three weeks that I was there, I had all the payroll that he told me that I had, but then all of a sudden it was like, overnight things are changing. Like I went from 198 hours every single week for the first month to, okay, well now you've got 180 and I'm like, okay, 180. All right. Well.
AS: So they cut the number of hours. So the number of people you can pay, so you're cutting the people's hours that work for you, and you're also making it harder to run the store because there's fewer people in the building at the same time. Right?
MG: Yes, absolutely. 100%. So, you know, the next week my labor was 180 and I, you know, I didn't say anything. I'm like, okay. You know, whatever, like, you know, I can manage that, but then the next week after that it was 170. And then it went to 160 and I'm like, okay, now what's going on? Like at this point this is when I started talking to my boss, and he was just basically saying that, you know, they're cutting labor everywhere right now. I mean, there was just excuse after excuse after excuse. And then all of a sudden it went from 160 to 134.
MG: And so I'm like really? 130 hours and I do this much business. My trucks are still huge. You know, my produce is still– like, everything is still the same from when I was getting 198 hours. My workload is still the same. And now I'm stuck at the store by myself and they're like, oh, well, you know, we need you guys to sign off on your price changes. And I'm like, dude, there was 50 pages of price changes. The price changes aren't getting done today. Sorry. Like you know, I'm human. I am not a robot. And I would like to be home, you know, at some time today.
AS: And were you paid overtime or like, were you paid hourly?
MG: No, we were, I'm a salaried worker, so it didn't matter how many hours I worked. I would still get paid the same amount every week.
AS: And what, what would change at your home when you were having to work more hours?
MG: My husband was definitely frustrated because I was home less and less. My days off were far few and in between, um, my husband and I actually separated for about six months, um, this past year, um, because he just felt like all I cared about was my job and now I can't, you know, tell him that I don't agree because at that point in time, I, I was that way. I was very career driven. I was all about Dollar General. I was all about, you know, being the best that I could be. And. Being able to go somewhere in the company to set up a better life for my children than what I had
AS: When you made that first TikTok video when you'd had it, when did you notice that people were watching it?
MG: I would say right around the time where my assistant manager came in. Um, she came in at two o'clock that day. And so I went outside to take a quick smoke break and I just went on to TikTok and I see how many views it had. And I think I even made a TikTok video after that stating that I had just told my assistant manager that I'm probably getting fired now because of how many views and shares I got.
AS: How many was it that first time you looked?
MG: Uh, it was over 600,000 views within just a few hours.
AS: Did you see that and think like– did it feel like ‘Oh, my gosh, this is exciting.’ Or did it feel like, ‘what have I done?’
MG: It was kind of a mix of all that. It was kind of excitement because I was like, oh, that's so cool. You know, people are actually, you know, paying attention to what I said, but at the same time it was like, holy shit. I probably just totally lost my job. Like 100 percent. Like there's no coming back from this now.
AS: Was there any part of you that felt, did it feel like when you left your first marriage, was there a sort of like, there's no undoing this, there's a clear before and after. Did it feel at all like when you realized you could use a curling iron for the first time, when you realized you could live in a different way than you had during your first marriage?
MG: It kind of did. It kind of did. I, I guess I never really looked at it that way, but yeah, it did. And you know, now that I am without Dollar General, it, it's almost like the same feeling I felt when my marriage ended. Like I'm realizing everything that I was dealing with with Dollar General and I see all of the things that the company does to make you feel like you're so special and you’re so appreciated, appreciated, like they give you just, these little itty-bitty things, you know, that just keep you holding on and keep you fighting and keep you working and keep you there. But in the end, yeah, you're just so disposable and you don't matter.
AS: Well, and it sounds kind of complicated because on the one hand, you now sort of see clearly that some, some rules you were trying to live by were rigged in a way that weren't going to allow you to succeed. Like you see that, but you also see like, it sounds like you were trying to do right by the people who worked for you as a manager, you know, and like those relationships were not fake or not, you know, they were real. Those are real people.
MG: Oh yes, absolutely all. I still, I still talk to my team that I worked with in Georgia three years ago,
AS: Oh really?
MG: I still talk, yeah.
AS: Aw. What do they make of what's happened in your life Mary?
MG: They are so happy. They're so proud.
AS: Do you think of yourself as TikTok famous?
MG: My daughter says I am. But I mean, I, I don't even really, I never really even thought about it, to be honest with you. I mean, you know, when I meet people, like I was at the rally and I've had, I had a bunch of people come up to me and they're like, you're Mary from TikTok. You’re famous, I need to get a picture. And I’m like ‘okay,’ you know. But do I consider myself famous and high and mighty and all these things? No, because I've never been that way. And I think that's one reason why I make connections the way I do is because even though I'm your boss, that's just a title. I'm not better than you. I mean, I'm not better than anyone else. You know, my sales associate that's running my register. She could probably do my job as long as I showed her and I guided her and led her in the right direction. You know, the only thing that makes me your boss is because I have a little bit more knowledge and a little bit more background, but once we walk out of this building, we are the same exact people. I go and eat at McDonald's just like you do, you know.
AS: Mary, I, I grew up in West Virginia and one thing that, that you're sort of taught growing up in West Virginia is that it's really important to make sure everybody– you know, that's something we say, like, I don't think I'm any better than anybody else. And that's like a really important thing. You don't want to be viewed as a snob, you know?
AS: But let me just suggest that you could be TikTok famous, not because you think you're better than anybody else, but because you deserve to be heard.
MG: Yes. But doesn't everybody?
AS: Yes. But nobody was listening to you. You know what I mean?
MG: They’re listening to me now!
That’s Mary Gundel in Tampa Florida. Since she got fired she’s been driving for Lyft and Uber to make money.
MG: One day yeah I can make 250 bucks but the next day I’ll be lucky if I can bring home 100, you know.
And she’s also still organizing…she plans to file soon to create a new labor organization in Florida called Put In A Ticket.
Death Sex and Money is a listener-supported production of WNYC Studios in New York. This episode was produced by Zoe Azulay. The rest of the team is Julia Furlan, Afi Yellow-Duke, Emily Botein, and Andrew Dunn. Our intern is Lilly Clark.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
I’m on Instagram @annasalepics, the show is @deathsexmoney on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Thanks to Felicia Yue for being a member of Death, Sex & Money and supporting us with a monthly donation. Join Felicia and support what we do here by going to deathsexmoney.org/donate.
MG: My therapist just kept telling me and she's just like, you know, people are gonna judge you and they're going to look at you however they want to, but just know their opinions are invalid unless they have been through it themselves.
AS: Love that therapist.
MG: Until they are in your shoes.
AS: Tell them to stuff it.
MG: Yes, basically.
I’m Anna Sale and this is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC.