USA Today: This Holiday Season, Let's Talk About Retail Workers Instead of Coal Miners

Originally published on 11/24/2017 3:15 AM

The people selling and wrapping your gifts are a huge segment of the economy. But very few of these jobs offer a pathway to the middle class.

Far more than the miners or factory workers that President Trump regularly touts, the retail salesperson is the face of today’s economy. Nearly 16 million people work in retail in America, more than 300 times as many as the 52,000 in coal mining. They are the people wrapping gifts, stocking shelves and providing advice on what to buy this holiday season for your friends and family.

Yet the retail industry is also a precarious place to work and has only become more so over the past year. Since last October, retail has lost more than 100,000 jobs, as online retailing and Wall Street turned up the pressure on the industry. Iconic retailers like Toys R’ Us, for example, have buckled from the weight of leveraged debt demanded of them by private equity firms. Brick-and-mortar stores have moved online.

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Even as the retail industry changes, though, it will continue to be one of the biggest employers in America. Despite rumors of the “retail apocalypse,” in 2017 more stores opened than closed. And retail still employs more than one in 10 American workers.

We have the chance to help retail workers weather the storm and make these jobs better — the kind of stable, sustainable jobs that families can count on.

Some employers are already making moves in this direction. Walmart, for example, has invested $100 million in job training. In September, Target announced it would raise wages to $15 by 2020.

Yet to gauge if we’re making progress, we need to hear from retail workers themselves. A new Fair Workweek Initiative survey does just that, looking at the experiences of nearly 1,100 retail workers across the industry — from big box stores like Target to clothing retailers like Victoria’s Secret and the Gap.

The survey reveals that very few people employed in retail get what Americans expect for a hard day’s work, let alone a real pathway to the middle class. Only 8% of front-line retail workers, for example, had what could be called a “good job” that paid at least $15 an hour, with full-time hours, health insurance, and paid time off.

Even more alarming was the lack of mobility. One in three workers hadn’t received a raise in the last two years. Only 18% of those who had changed positions moved up to a managerial role. A major reason for the stagnation was employers’ reliance on part-time hours and variable schedules. Nearly half of front-line workers like sales associates and cashiers worked part-time with hours that fluctuated wildly, from as few as 13 hours to as many as 29 from week to week.

And their willingness to work those erratic hours was the key to getting promoted. More than half of those surveyed cited “open availability” as the leading factor in a promotion, far more important than education or a positive performance review.

That demand to work 24/7 means retail workers have to run an obstacle course to get ahead. Nearly half took care of kids and other family members, and one in five had a second job. Given that women are still primary caregivers, it’s no surprise this juggling act perpetuated the gender gap in retail, where women are just a fraction of managers. About 70% of women reported that the stress of their job took a toll on their health, while nearly the same percentage of men reported no health issues at all.

Although employers will tell you that training for new skills lets workers advance, the survey revealed that, as a way to get ahead, workers themselves ranked it about equal to availability. Training works (59% who received it moved to a better position) but just not for enough people.

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The good news is that we are making gains. A wave of cities and states has raised the minimum wage and guaranteed earned sick time, and most recently, a fair work week. Over the past few years, a movement led by working people has won more predictable, stable hours for people in the service economy, including in Seattle, New York City, and Oregon. And after state attorneys general launched inquiries into the widespread use of on-call scheduling in retail, more than 13 brands stopped the practice.

Now more than ever, people working in retail need a greater voice in the industry. Ensuring more stability for those working in retail can help millions navigate this moment of disruption, but also ensure that the retail job of the future is one that supports a family. This holiday season, let’s push for solutions that make retail an industry where working people prosper.

Carrie Gleason is Director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy. Follow her on Twitter: @GleasonCarrie

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