Commentary Human Rights

Holiday Retail Jobs: Great for Sales, Tough on Workers (Updated)

Jean Stevens

The holiday rush, expected to be a boon, exacerbates not so rosy conditions facing the majority of the nation’s 7.8 million retail sales workers and cashiers year-round.

UPDATE, November 21, 2:31 p.m.: On Tuesday, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors passed a set of policies aimed at giving hourly workers more predictable schedules. Scheduled to go into effect in six months, the legislation will help ensure “more men and women in our community have schedules and hours that allow them pay their bills, plan their lives and take care of their loved ones,” said Gordon Mar, executive director of Jobs With Justice San Francisco, in a statement.

At 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day, Christina of Long Island, New York, will be wide awake under the fluorescent lights of her local Old Navy for a six-hour shift, setting up signage for sales and new merchandise for the store to open at 4 p.m. that afternoon. The store will remain open for another straight 31 hours, with staff cleaning up past midnight.

Christina, 25, who declined to share her last name for fear of being fired, will also work another shift on Black Friday, but she’s not sure when she’ll be called in. “I have to be available to work even from midnight to 6 a.m.,” she said. “It frustrates me.”

Retail industry analysts expects this year’s holiday shopping season to be a boon, and to accommodate it, more major stores this year plan to open on Thanksgiving Day itself to cash in early on Black Friday sales. Stores also announced plans to hire thousands of seasonal workers across the country: Target planned to hire 70,000 workers, Kohl’s to hire 67,000, and Wal-Mart 60,000. About 43 percent of retail employers expect to hire these part-time workers, according to a Harris Poll survey of more than 2,000 companies nationwide.

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But while holiday rush store openings and hiring represents a rosy outlook to sales this season, they exacerbate not so rosy conditions facing the majority of the nation’s 7.8 million retail sales workers and cashiers year-round: nearly 24-hour “on-call” demand from employers, reduced hours with only a couple hours notice (even after arriving to work), and fluctuating set schedules worked per week. Workers who complain or ask for specific hours never get called in, said Christina, who has also worked for Gap and Kohl’s.

Extreme holiday hiring is the next step, said Chris Tilly, director of UCLA’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment who has studied retail labor for more than 20 years. “In the United States, it’s been a slippery slope from expanding part-time work to having unpredictable scheduling, to now, if we can an edge by selling on Christmas, we’ll do that,” told RH Reality Check in a phone interview. “It’s uncivilized.”

Part-time retail workers today face these scheduling practices, especially workers in major clothing, grocery, and big-box stores like Wal-Mart and Target. Women workers, who make up about 55 percent of the retail sales workforce, are particularly hit by these scheduling practices, as these practices make it impossible for them to arrange child care or elder care, attend school or work another part-time job, all of which likely required them to seek a retail job in the first place. One in every ten working poor women work in retail, or about 1.3 million, a number expected to increase if retail work conditions do not change. Only 17 percent of retail workers in New York City have a weekly set schedule, and about a third knew their schedule one week in advance.

“You don’t know how when you’re going to work, how many hours you’re going to work, and how much money you’ll earn,” said Susan Lambert, associate professor at the University of Chicago School of Social Administration who studies low-wage work. “It creates high levels of instability and makes it very difficult to do anything else in your life.”

While working at Gap, Christina said, some days she’d be called in, and other days she’d wait for a call that never came. At Old Navy, she learns her upcoming week’s work schedule with only two days’ notice, which she says is not enough time to schedule other jobs or, say, doctor’s appointments. “Some days I’ll open, some days I’ll close. I don’t know which days I will work.”

Many workers also do not receive “reporting pay” when they arrive to work and are told to go home if they are not needed. This results in wasted money for transportation, child care, or turning down another job, Lambert said.

Christina remembers trekking for nearly two hours through a snowstorm one afternoon from her home in Queens to report to a four-hour shift at a Manhattan Gap store. “I clocked in, I’m working for half an hour, and my manager tells me, ‘we don’t need you today, you can go home,’” Christina said. “It felt like they didn’t have respect for my time. I could’ve planned my day to other things. That’s money that’s spent, time wasted.”

Why such scheduling? Employers compensate for flagging sales or meet profit goals by cutting hours as needed, minute by minute, depending on consumer traffic, sales predictions, even the weather, Tilly said. Stores now closely monitor these conditions through certain software.

Retailers also must meet certain profit quotas set by corporate leaders, and if store managers recognize they are not hitting those quotas, they’ll begin cutting hours. Holiday workers are often “hired” but may never be called in once if sales do not meet expectations, Lambert said.

A generation ago, retail work served as lifelong career. Retail workers kept regular hours and earned enough to pay a mortgage and feed their families. They rose through ranks to managerial and even ownership positions. Through the 1970s and ‘80s, retail stores faced increased competition from new big-box megastores like Wal-Mart, and took advantage of widespread unemployment to hire workers at low wages, to cut hours, and to encourage turnover, Tilly said. People today are desperate for jobs, and retail jobs are often the only jobs they can find.

“It’s not, I want to do the job, I need to do the job,” said Christina, who has been applying for other work. “I know a lot of people who think they would be unemployed if not for this job.”

Retail and wholesale employers have cut one million full-time jobs since 2006 and have hired back half as many part-time employees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Today, 41 percent of retail workers work part-time and earn 35 percent less than full-time employees. These workers are overwhelming women, and more than 70 percent are 25 years old or older. Retail workers are an expense, not an asset for investment, Lambert said, and therefore cut as much as possible.

Most of these practices have been completely legal—employers can lawfully change an employee’s work hours without any notice or without asking the employee’s consent, and in most states, employers do not have to pay employees who report to work but are sent home upon arrival. Employers are not legally required to provide any benefits—such as health coverage, paid time off, or workers’ compensation—to part-time workers.

Retail workers have begun to fight back for more legal protections, and legislators nationwide have begun to catch on: cities of San Francisco, Milwaukee, and SeaTac, Washington, have passed legislation requiring employers to provide, if requested, more hours to part-time workers and schedules in advance. In September, San Francisco introduced an additional ordinance that would require employers to give two weeks’ notice to part-time employees, to compensate for shift changes, and provide similar benefits to part-timers as to full-time employees. New York and Michigan introduced bills this fall to allow workers to request certain hours and to guarantee reporting pay.

Congress is considering the Schedules That Work Act, which would create a right for all employees to make scheduling requests and require employers to consider them and grant them, if reasonable. This bill would also require employers to pay employees reporting time pay, split shift pay, and two weeks’ notice of work schedules.

Such laws would create much needed fair standards in retail work, Lambert said, much like standards on child labor, overtime work, and weekend shifts. These standards will encourage workers to stay in their jobs and become better-trained, more reliable, and financially secure. Retail workers deserve set schedules, shift change, and reporting pay, Christina said, because the work is just as vital to the business.

“We all play a part in the company,” Christina said. “If you treat me well, the way we should be treated, I’m going to be a happy worker and we’ll have happier customers.”

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