Black Friday and the Truth About Retail Jobs

Starting this Friday and through the next month, we Americans will have something in common: We will be shopping more than usual. Most of us will go in and out of large chain stores countless times throughout the holiday season, making our purchases while likely never giving a thought to the fact that nearly half of the retail workers there are earning wages that put their families at or below the poverty line.

Retail Reality

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the typical retail salesperson earned $20,990 in 2011. The typical cashier earned less — just $18,500. Both are well below the official government poverty threshold of $22,113 for a family of four. Too many retail workers are struggling to support families on these wages. In fact, nearly one in five retail workers at our largest chains is the sole breadwinner in his or her household.

The industry employed more than 15 million Americans this year and is projected to be one of the fastest growing areas of employment over the next decade. While retail bounced back gradually after the Great Recession, the sector's profitability reached a 10-year-high in the first half of 2012.  And theholiday forecast is optimistic, predicting a 4.1 percent gain in sales over 2011.

While the retail sector has recovered, retail employees are no better off.  They are working harder than ever, and getting less in return. Retail workers' productivity has increased by an average of 0.8% each year since 2008, yet their compensation on average declined.  In this sense employees financed the recovery of retail firms by means of increased workloads and forfeited wages.