Over the past several years, many retailers have moved up the start times of their “Black Friday” sales so that they start on Thursday—which is Thanksgiving—instead of Friday. Despite some public disapproval, this move towards an earlier start to the holiday shopping season appears to be here to stay. Retailers with operations in New England should be aware that Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Maine have laws that prohibit most retailers from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas day. Although these so-called “blue laws” have been relaxed in many respects to allow retailers to open for business on Sundays and certain other holidays (often requiring retailers to pay employees premium pay if they do), the long-standing prohibitions on Thanksgiving and Christmas openings remain in effect for most retailers.
Massachusetts law forbids businesses from opening on Thanksgiving and Christmas, unless one of many statutory exceptions applies. These exceptions do not allow retailers to open, however, unless they fit into certain specialized categories. On these two holidays, retail stores are not allowed to operate under the exception commonly used by retailers to open on Sundays (and many other holidays), which allows them to operate so long as they do not mandate that employees work on those days and pay them one-and-one-half times their regular rate of pay.
Also, although Massachusetts law allows businesses to open if they obtain a permit from the local police chief of each municipality in which it operates, retailers cannot rely on this exception to open on Thanksgiving and Christmas this year (and have not been able to for several years). Local police officials may not issue permits without approval from the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, which must approve permits uniformly throughout the state. On October 17, 2014, consistent with its past practice, the Department of Labor and Workforce Development issued guidance informing all local police officials that it will not approve the issuance of any permits to open on Thanksgiving or Christmas day in 2014.
Massachusetts law provides many other narrow specialty exceptions, which retailers will want to review for application to their operations. The entire list, which is codified in Mass. Gen. L. ch. 136, section 6, includes (among several others) exceptions that allow:
- opening a store that sells foodstuffs and employs three or fewer people including the owner (like a convenience store, but not a grocery store);
- baking and selling such baked goods (i.e., bakeries);
- the sale of drugs and medicines;
- the sale of greeting cards;
- the sale of photographic films and the processing of such films;
- the sale of gasoline and the operation of an automotive service facility;
- the retail sale of tires, batteries, and auto parts for emergency use;
- the sale of plants, trees, or bushes and related materials;
- the sale or delivery of cut flowers (i.e., florist shops);
- the sale of pets and pet supplies;
- the sale of gifts, souvenirs, antiques, secondhand furniture, handcrafted goods, and arts goods; and
- the operation of a home video movie rental business.
The sale of alcoholic beverages is subject to additional extensive laws and regulations according to which stores that are licensed to make such sales may not open on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Massachusetts law allows various service businesses to operate, most notably restaurants, hotels, and inns. Finally, section 14 of the law permits the following activities to be conducted on a legal holiday such as Thanksgiving and Christmas: dancing, game, sport, fair, exposition, play, entertainment or public diversion, and the labor, business, or work necessary or incidental to these activities. Employers should note that the Massachusetts laws on conducting business on Sundays and other holidays differ from the rules that apply to Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Maine law generally prohibits businesses from opening on Thanksgiving or Christmas. Maine, like Massachusetts, also provides a variety of exceptions to this rule. However, the exceptions for general retail operations allow only small retailers to open for business. Specifically, a retail store can open if it usually employs “no more than 5 persons, including the proprietor,” or if the store has “no more than 5,000 square feet of interior customer selling space, excluding back room storage, office and processing space.” Retail stores with over 5,000 square feet may not open on Thanksgiving day, Christmas day, or Easter day (even though those larger stores can open on other holidays and Sundays so long as they do not require employees to work on Sundays).
Maine law also exempts a long list of specific operations from the holiday opening ban. Specialty retailers of the following kinds are permitted to open on holidays under the law’s exceptions: pharmacies; garages and motor vehicle service stations; establishments primarily selling boats, boating equipment, sporting equipment, souvenirs, and novelties; greenhouses; and stands that sell seasonal produce, dairy, seafood, or Christmas trees. Also, the law allows restaurants, hotels, and various other entertainment venues (such as movie theaters, sporting events, and concerts venues) to open on holidays.
Rhode Island’s holiday opening law forbids most retail businesses from operating on Thanksgiving day or Christmas day. Although the law states that businesses may, for most holidays, apply to the town or city in which they are located for a license to open, the law bars towns or cities from issuing such licenses for Thanksgiving day and Christmas day, except to a subset of specialized retail businesses.
Under chapter 410, 5-23-2, towns or cities may license the opening of the following types of retail establishments: (1) pharmacies; (2) businesses that principally sell food and employ fewer than six employees per shift (such as some convenience stores); (3) businesses principally engaged in the sale of cut flowers, floral products, plants, shrubs, trees, and garden accessories; (4) businesses that principally conduct sales or rental of video cassette tapes; and (5) bakeries. Except for bakeries and pharmacies, if these specialized retailers receive a license and open on a holiday, they must pay employees one-and-one-half times their regular pay for all hours worked and guarantee at least four hours of work.
Rhode Island employers that are open on holidays may not require employees to work on those days; working on a holiday must be “strictly voluntary,” and employers may not discriminate against, dismiss, discharge, or impose any other penalty against any employee who refuses to work on the holiday.
Also, certain service businesses are not covered by the holiday opening law. It does not apply to restaurants or any other business “principally serving food for consumption on and off the premises.” Also, certain specialized retailers may open without obtaining a license, including wholesale farmers’ markets and those selling “gasoline, oil, grease, automotive parts, automotive servicing or automotive accessories.”