Gone Fishin’: RI goes it (almost) alone by banning retail sales on Thanksgiving

Although Rhode Island General Laws (§ 5-23-2) allow licenses for businesses to operate on most holidays, “No license shall be issued on December 25 of any year or on Thanksgiving Day” except to specially exempt types of businesses including pharmacies, small groceries, bakeries and video rental stores. Because of this, Rhode Island is believed to be one of only three states, along with Massachusetts and Maine, where big-box retail stores are prohibited from opening on Thanksgiving Day. As the following day, Black Friday, has become the busiest shopping day of the year since at least 2005 due to many non-retail employees having the day off work as part of what in practice is a four-day weekend, many retailers want to open their doors to the public on Thanksgiving Day itself. Has Rhode Island resisted this pressure?

Perhaps due to public sentiment in favor of keeping retail stores closed on Thanksgiving Day, no one was willing to go on the record in support of changing the law. Unlike Massachusetts, there is little concern about lost business from customers willing to drive into New Hampshire to start their shopping early. (General Assembly legislators and spokesmen were unavailable for comment, due to the recent election and caucus activity following.) In the modern era of cut-throat big-box retail competition, prohibiting retail sales on Thanksgiving Day is viewed as a labor protection allowing retail employees to spend the holiday with their families.

The RI Department of Labor and Training (DLT) is responsible for enforcing the holiday closing laws. Asked whether retail employers could require employees to report to work on Thanksgiving Day, for example to prepare for Black Friday, RI DLT Executive Counsel Sean Fontes said, “They can bring employees in as long as they’re not open for business; however, they would have to pay those employees time-and-a-half.”

RI DLT Chief Public Affairs Officer Nora Crowley said that, although she could not speak for the entire senior staff of the department, she was not aware of efforts to change the law to allow retail sales on Thanksgiving Day. “DLT’s purview here is to enforce the law but not to take liberties in designing it, and so as it stands our priority is making sure that, if employees are working, then they are receiving appropriate wages.”

Most retailers comply with the law, and there have been few complaints. “We have no particular concern about violations… if we feel there are violators out there that we’re looking to enforce against, we don’t have that fear because based upon our enforcement of this statute, as long as I’ve been here over the last seven years, it’s never been brought to our attention that there are any violations happening at a high level” of frequency, Fontes said.

The Thanksgiving holiday is a bit strange in Rhode Island law. Unlike most holidays, its date is not fixed by statute but instead, according to RI General Laws (§ 25-1-2), “The governor shall annually appoint a day of public thanksgiving, and shall announce the day by proclamation to the people of the state.” Of course, one would not expect Independence Day to move from July 4 or Christmas Day to move from December 25, but in addition to these the law (§ 25-1-1) does specify, for example, Memorial Day as the last Monday in May and Labor Day as the first Monday in September. This unusual situation with Thanksgiving Day is a result of Rhode Island never getting around to updating its law, because before President Abraham Lincoln standardized it on the last Thursday in November during the American Civil War in 1863, each state chose its own date. To lengthen the Christmas shopping season, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day again, eventually in 1941 setting it on the fourth Thursday (which is not always the last).

It is not clear how long RI has prohibited retail sales on Thanksgiving Day. The legal statute dates to 1930, but it likely incorporated an older “blue law” ban dating possibly as long ago as the Colonial Era. By simply changing nothing – not even fixing the date of Thanksgiving Day – RI law ended up ahead of the national curve providing a popular labor protection.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Prove that you are human *

Previous post:

Next post: