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Retail Jobs: No Way to Live

Amy Traub

“Every week I would work different hours, and budgeting to make rent and cover my expenses became difficult because I didn’t know how much I would earn each month,” explains Janet, a former Tommy Hilfiger salesperson. 

She is one of 436 workers surveyed as part of a new study of the retail workforce, and her situation is common. The study, released this week by Stephanie Luce of CUNY’s Murphy Institute and Naoki Fujita at the Retail Action Project, finds that 83 percent of retail workers in New York City have no set schedule from week to week and month to month. Seventy percent only find out which days they’ll be working within a week. The practice of just-in-time scheduling, documented in a 2011 Demos study, is a prime culprit. “Workers are now competing with each other over sales, not for commission but just to ‘get on the schedule’,” the retail report explains. In such a precarious situation, arranging childcare, trying to make it to class, or scheduling around a second job become, in the words of the report, “a significant challenge.” On Twitter, New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse put it somewhat differently “how does 1 plan a life?” 

The de facto answer from the retail industry is that no one should expect to plan a life. The primarily low-wage, no-benefits, unpredictably-scheduled retail jobs should be filled by young people working in the industry for a short time before quickly moving on to something better. Retail is a way station to "real" jobs, the jobs of the future. 

The reality is far different. While many retail employees are young and turnover in individual jobs is high, the study finds workers have typically been in the retail industry for four years, and many would like to make a career of it. One in three workers are trying to support a family on retail wages. Yet the opportunities for advancement and promotion that do exist are sharply limited by race and gender. And the quality of jobs paying commission -- positions that once enabled experienced retail employees to make a steady living -- have eroded substantially. As for students working retail as they put themselves through college -- a key step toward the “something better” young workers are supposed to be pursuing -- the unpredictable work schedules pose a steep barrier to making it class.

The retail industry wants it both ways: as Jack Temple argued in this space last month the National Retail Federation asserts that it is "moving America forward" and driving economic recovery, yet it's also fighting bitterly against a higher minimum wage that would help to make these jobs more sustainable. That's particularly damaging because retail positions are the jobs of the future. Despite increases in online shopping (a practice that raises its own questions about wages and working conditions for the warehouse employees shoppers never see) retail sales jobs are projected to be among the fastest growing occupations in the U.S. By 2018, the number of Americans working frontline retail sales jobs will grow to be roughly equivalent to the population of Alabama – about 4.8 million.

Should these all be people whose lack of stability in hours and income make it impossible to plan a life?