Some Retail Workers Find Better Deals With Unions
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Author: Rachel L. Swarns
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New York Times
By now, the hardships endured by retail workers at clothing stores across New York City are achingly familiar: the frantic scramble to get assigned enough hours to earn a living on painfully low wages; the ever-changing, on-call schedules that upend child care arrangements, college schedules and desperate efforts to find second jobs.
Workers and government officials around the country are increasingly pushing for change. But for an example of more humane workplaces, there is no need to jet to Sweden or Denmark or Mars. We need look no farther than Midtown Manhattan, no farther than Herald Square.
Ladies and gentlemen, step right onto the escalators and glide on up to the sixth floor. Allow me to introduce you to Debra Ryan, a sales associate in the Macy's bedding department.
For more than two decades, Ms. Ryan has guided shoppers in the hunt for bedroom décor, helping them choose between medium-weight and lightweight comforters, goose-down and synthetic pillows, and sheets and blankets in a kaleidoscope of colors.
But here is what's truly remarkable, given the current environment in retail: Ms. Ryan knows her schedule three weeks in advance. She works full time and her hours are guaranteed. She has never been sent home without pay because the weather was bad or too few customers showed up for a Labor Day sale on 300-thread-count sheets.
This is no fantasy. This is real life, in the heart of New York.
"I'm able to pay my rent, thank God, and go on vacation, at least once a year," Ms. Ryan said. "There's a sense of security."
So what makes this Macy's store so different? Its employees are represented by a union, which has insisted on stability in scheduling for its members. (Union workers enjoy similar scheduling arrangements at the Bloomingdale's, H&M and Modell's Sporting Goods stores in Manhattan.)
Now, I know the term "union" is a dirty word in some circles, even in this city, where labor still has considerable clout and has catapulted many workers into the middle class. But no one can deny that these union workers savor something that is all too rare in the retail industry right now: guaranteed minimum hours - for part-time and full-time employees - and predictable schedules.
This is no accident.
"The biggest issue for workers today is scheduling," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which negotiated contracts for workers at the Macy's, Bloomingdale's, H&M and Modell's stores.
"It's not just about how much they're paid per hour," Mr. Applebaum said, "but how many hours a week they get to work."
To envision what life is like when you do not have those guarantees, just walk across 34th Street to the Zara clothing store, where Sonica Smith has worked as a sales associate for nearly two years.
Ms. Smith is a 26-year-old single mother of two who loves working in retail. She loves clothes. She loves dressing customers. But her unpredictable work schedule and the relentless struggle to get enough hours wreak constant havoc on her life.
Some weeks, she is assigned 24 hours of work; other weeks, she gets only 16. There is never a guaranteed minimum and there are never enough hours to get close to full time.
"At work, all I'm thinking about is: How am I going to pay the rent for the month?" said Ms. Smith, who earns $11 an hour. "How am I going to pay the person who is caring for my kids today?"
She said her last check amounted to only $396 for two weeks of work. "I nearly cried," she said.
This is no surprise to anyone who works in retail. In a report scheduled to be released on Monday, Stephanie Luce, an associate professor of labor studies at the City University of New York, and the Retail Action Project, a workers' advocacy group financed by foundations and Mr. Appelbaum's union, surveyed 236 retail workers in Manhattan and Brooklyn and found that only 40 percent had set minimum hours per week.
The good news is that some retail companies are promising to do things differently. Last month, Starbucks vowed to improve the "stability and consistency" of the work schedules of its 130,000 baristas. (The company was responding to a New York Times article chronicling the enormous strains that unpredictable scheduling places on workers.)
At Zara, where employees have demanded more predictability, the company has given workers more notice of coming shifts, though workers are still pressing for guaranteed minimum hours. Government officials, meanwhile, are increasingly trying to curb the harsh scheduling practices.
Ms. Ryan, the sales associate at Macy's, hopes the movement will spread. She knows from personal experience that satisfying, sustainable careers can be built in retail. After 27 years in the business, she earns about $40,000 a year - nearly $20 an hour - and never has to worry from week to week about her pay.
"Thank God, I work for Macy's," she said.

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