Portside aims to provide varied material of interest to people on the left that will help them to interpret the world, and to change it.
Myth 1: Most retail workers are teenagers or young adults who do not really need the money
Reality: The average age of a retail worker is 37 years old (pdf), and more than half of year-round retail workers contribute a significant portion (pdf) of their family's total income. For example, researchers found that a third (pdf) of New York City retail workers support at least one dependent.
Myth 2: Retail workers are unskilled
Reality: 28% of retail workers (pdf) have completed some college, and 15% have a bachelor's degree or higher. Employers have deskilled a lot of the work, but still report in surveys that they want employees with both soft and hard skills, including product knowledge, ability to relate to customers, and increasingly, familiarity with technology for assisting with online sales.
Myth 3: Retail workers may earn a low wage, but most of them are only doing the job temporarily until they move up to higher level jobs or other careers
Reality: While the retail industry has higher turnover than many industries, most retail workers stay in the industry - which means that the turnover is high for individual employers, particularly those that pay low wages and treat workers poorly. In a large national survey (pdf), about half of retail respondents said they were not very likely to try to change employers in the next year. Workers do not lack a work ethic or commitment to retail, but are often forced to look for another job that provides more hours or more predictable schedules.
Myth 4: Retail work is meant to be just an entry-level job
Reality: Over 15 million people work in the retail sector, and that number is expected to grow, as retail sales worker occupations make-up the second largest job growth projections in the country, after food preparation occupations. More than 1 out of every 10 jobs in the country is in retail trade, which makes it a major part of our economy. It is unlikely that most retail workers will leave the sector for other work.
Myth 5: Retail jobs are pretty good jobs - at least workers are inside where it is warm, and conditions are safe
Reality: While many retail workers enjoy aspects of their job, such as working with customers, the average job is missing most aspects of a "good job". According to the Department of Labor, the median wage is $9.53 for retail salesworkers and $9.13 for cashiers, and 15% of all retail workers live in or near poverty. A survey of New York retail workers (pdf) found that only 29% receive health benefits from their employer. The injury rate in retail (pdf) is higher than the average for all industries, and workers commonly experience injury from contact with objects or equipment, overexertion, falls, sprains and strains. In 2012, 262 retail workers were killed on the job.
Myth 6: If retail workers really had problems on the job, they could approach the employer and ask for a raise - or report legal problems to the government
Reality: All workers have the right to report problems to government authorities, and they have the legal right to ask for higher wages - including working with co-workers to demand improvements. But in fact, studies show that employers frequently penalize workers (pdf) who organize in the workplace, such as firing, surveilling or harassing in other ways. Last week, the National Labor Relations Board issued findings that Walmart had illegally fired and disciplined employees who had participated in protests or strikes. Furthermore, while workers can file complaints with OSHA or the Department of Labor about unsafe working conditions or discriminatory treatment, processing those complaints can take years as most government regulatory agencies, particularly the Department of Labor, are grossly understaffed and under-resourced (pdf).
Myth 7: Most retail workers prefer to work part-time, so retail scheduling works well for them
Reality: Many retail workers do want part-time work due to their school or childcare responsibilities, but the majority of part-time workers do not have control over their schedule. According to reports (pdf), 13% of all retail workers, and 18% of low-wage retail workers, are working part-time but would like more hours if they could get them.
Myth 8: A lot of retail workers are lazy and do not work hard enough to help customers
Reality: Many retail workers report that they like working in the industry, and want to make a career in the field. Yet employment practices make it difficult for them to do their job well. Employers look to cut labor costs by keeping staffing to a bare minimum, making it hard for workers in some stores to provide adequate service to customers. In other stores, retail workers have to meet quotas for selling certain items or getting customers to enroll in credit cards or loyalty card programs. Employer demands interfere with workers ability to provide quality service to workers.
Myth 9: Raising retail worker salaries would get passed on to consumers, resulting in much higher prices
Reality: Studies show that higher wages do not necessarily translate into significant price increases. In fact, one study (pdf) found that if Walmart raised wages to $12 an hour for associates, and passed 100% of that onto consumers, prices would increase by only $0.46 per shopping trip, or $12.49 per year, for the average shopper. But Walmart could also cover the wage increases in other ways, such as a cut to its CEO salary, now at almost $21m a year. The same is true for other large retailers, who could easily raise wages with little impact on prices (pdf).
Myth 10: Most retail workers want to work on holidays in order to get more pay
Reality: Employers are not required by law to pay extra to workers working on holidays, unless that extra work puts their total work week above 40 hours. Retail workers report frustration that they have little control over their schedules, and some note that they could be penalized for refusing to work on holidays. Even if workers do get paid time and a half and holiday shifts are "voluntary," most retail workers are underemployed and need more work. Only with sustainable schedules and living wages, would the decision to work on a holiday truly be voluntary.
[Stephanie Luce is associate professor of labor studies, at the Murphy Institute, School for Professional Studies/CUNY. She is the author of Fighting for a Living Wage, Labor Movements: Global Perspectives, and co-author with Naoki Fujita of "Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short".