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Vicki Shabo, Director of Work and Family Programs

From the desk of ... Vicki Shabo

New Study Documents Troubling Trends in Retail Industry

January 24, 2012 | Work and Family

Retail is the nation's second-largest sector and one of the fastest-growing industries in the country. We all depend on it - and on the retail workers that help us every day by ringing up our purchases, stocking store shelves and greeting us as we enter our favorite stores. It also plays an important role in our economy. Yet, according to a new study from the Retail Action Project and City University of New York's Murphy Institute, workers in the retail industry too often face poverty wages, few benefits and unpredictable schedules - with significant disparities by gender and race.

The study, Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short, is the result of a direct survey of frontline retail workers. It looks at responses from hundreds of non-union workers in New York City who work at large retail stories and national chains, ranging from high-end fashion to off-brand clothing retailers.

According to the study, average wages among retail workers are 52 percent lower than the citywide average in New York - and there are significant gaps for women and workers of color. The median wage among hourly workers is $9.50. For women, it's only $9.00, compared to $10.13 for men. And for African Americans and Latinos, the median wage is $10.00 and $9.00, respectively, compared to $10.50 for whites.

Low wages can have a significant impact on the economic security and well-being of these workers and their families, especially when nearly 60 percent of retail workers are not full time and half say they need more hours. Just as threatening is a widespread failure to provide basic workplace protections like paid sick days, paid time off and access to health insurance.

The study found that only 44 percent of retail workers have paid sick days - and only about half of those workers have ever used a paid sick day for fear of employer retaliation or job loss. Just 46 percent have any paid time off. And 71 percent don't receive health insurance through their retail job. In general, the study found that full-time workers are more likely to have access to these policies but, again, women and workers of color are less likely to be hired full time.

Scheduling is yet another challenge for these workers as they try to be loyal, available employees while caring for their children and families. Only 17 percent have a set schedule. More than half know their schedules only a week in advance. More than 40 percent must be on call, and almost half say their schedules change without their consent. Here, too, the problem is worse for workers of color. Unpredictable, erratic schedules often affect workers' child care obligations, pursuit of education, ability to make medical appointments and more.

These findings are beyond troubling for working families and for our economy. As the report concludes, "The retail workforce is at a crossroads that mirrors the broader trends in the national economy Implementing straightforward and sensible policies, such as a living wage and paid sick days legislation, would create a baseline for dignified work."

At the National Partnership, we couldn't agree more. These policies are common-sense prescriptions for retail workers - and all workers who struggle to provide for their families with low wages and few benefits. That's why federal paid sick days and paid leave standards, fair pay and workplace flexibility are so important. We hope this report will be a wake-up call for all employers and legislators who need to make these policies a priority.


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