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Tons Of Retail Workers Quitting For Better Pay, Probably Biden's Fault
Someone has to be outraged by this.
As the economy continues pulling itself out of the COVID ditch, the whole "supply and demand" thing seems to be surprising a lot of employers somehow. They resented that people weren't flocking back to jobs that paid lousy wages, and blamed their problems in hiring enough staff on mythical lazyboneses who were supposedly sitting around drawing princely unemployment benefits, while companies offering better pay and hours were deluged with applicants .
And with a lot of sectors hiring at the same time, that means a lot of people who got through the pandemic working stressful retail jobs for low pay are happy to jump ship for positions that pay better and/or provide a better work-life balance. The Washington Post reports that nearly 750,000 retail workers "put in their notice in April, the industry's largest one-month exodus since the Labor Department began tracking such data more than 20 years ago."
Some are finding less stressful positions at insurance agencies, marijuana dispensaries, banks and local governments, where their customer service skills are rewarded with higher wages and better benefits. Others are going back to school to learn new trades, or waiting until they are able to secure reliable child care.
The Post interviewed more than a dozen such workers, and to the surprise of no one, they were all glad to be out of retail jobs and doing damn near anything else. Nearly all "said the pandemic introduced new strains to already challenging work: longer hours, understaffed stores, unruly customers and even pay cuts."
Why, it's as if $10 or $11 an hour wasn't enough to keep them in a job where they risked being screamed at, coughed on, or threatened for asking customers to please wear a goddamned face mask.
The stories may not be as lyrical or heartbreaking as the iconic interviews in Working , but nobody's asking WaPo to be Studs Terkel. Even pared down for a newspaper story, they make clear that work in America is a grind, and work during the pandemic even more so.
Christina Noles spent much of the pandemic working the closing shift at a dollar store — sometimes nine consecutive days without a break — for $10.25 an hour. She felt isolated, anxious and demoralized.
Last month, the 34-year-old from Concord, N.C., quit, leaving the industry she's worked in for most of her adult life. Now she works from home for a local law firm — a job that, three days in, still seems too good to be true.
"There's a part of me that feels like this must all be a dream," Noles said. "There were a lot of things I liked about retail: I love talking to people and helping them, but the pandemic made me realize it was untenable."
And as so often happens, Noles found her new job largely thanks to a certain amount of luck. She'd already been thinking of looking for something else after five coworkers had tested positive for COVID-19. Then, on an especially busy night, a customer who "was charmed by her upbeat nature and impressed that not a single customer left despite the wait, encouraged her to apply for an opening at her law firm." Now she's making $13 an hour and doesn't have to get yelled at because the cookie packages keep getting smaller so they can still be sold for a dollar.
For validation of what working people already know, the story includes observations from experts, who note that yeah, in a competitive labor market, employers have to try to make jobs more attractive, and workers are no dummies.
"We're seeing a wider understanding that these were never good jobs and they were never livable jobs," said Rebecca Givan, a professor of labor studies and employment relations at Rutgers University. "In many cases, the pay is below a living wage and the hours are inconsistent and insufficient. If anything, the pandemic has made retail jobs even less sustainable than they already were."
Fortunately, a lot of places that laid staff off due to the pandemic are now anticipating new demand, so there are lots of jobs available at a rung above the average $13 per hour wage in retail. It's also a very weird labor market, because of last year's shutdowns.
Millions of retail workers were let go — unknowingly permanently — early on in the pandemic as dozens of retailers tumbled into bankruptcy, shuttered locations and sometimes liquidated thousands of stores. The result was a bifurcated industry — with booming business at supermarkets, pharmacies and hardware stores, while spending on clothing and other nonessential items tanked. Now that spending patterns are evening out again, retailers are having to hire accordingly to meet demand.
Some pie in the sky optimists are urging retailers to go beyond increasing hourly wages, and to focus on "structural problems in the industry" such as "stable schedules, safer working conditions and benefits like paid sick leave and vacation time." But can that really work, when during the pandemic it was possible to remind people they were lucky to have a job at all? Jesus, next the workers will think they're entitled to respect, or even worse, they might unionize!
For the moment, though, people who can find better work are going for it, like Jesse Rumpca, who somehow wasn't thrilled by the chance to be exposed to the virus by an employer who didn't give two shits about his health. He
quit his job at a liquor store last month to become a firefighter for the Oregon Department of Forestry. The 29-year-old, who has a degree in geography and environmental studies, took on retail work in March when most other industries weren't hiring.
But as the pandemic wore on, he felt increasingly anxious about getting sick during shifts, sometimes double- or triple-masking. When he found in early May that he hadn't been informed when a close colleague tested positive for the virus, he quit on the spot.
It probably says something that someone would prefer fighting wildfires — at better wages — to being yelled at by customers who may or may not wear masks.
Sounds like there's a lot of nicer work out there, while it lasts. And here's hoping the recovery keeps strengthening, because that means even the necessary crap jobs will have to pay more to lure workers. How about we pass some infrastructure and jobs bills, so everyone can get jobs? And let's see some union organizing while we're at it!
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