- Retail work has become increasingly untenable over the last decade.
- Business Insider spoke to employment attorney and labour expert Krista Hardwick about how conditions have changed for retail workers since 2009.
- Retail companies’ cost-cutting measures have all but eliminated full-time jobs for most retail workers, resulting in many workers having to take on multiple jobs to make ends meet. Other consequences include a lack of benefits and unpredictable schedules.
- But workers are fighting back. Across the country, retail workers are fighting for labour laws that would ensure more stable work schedules and a higher minimum wage for part-time workers.
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Retail work used to earn a respectable living. That’s not the case anymore, according to at least one labour expert – and this shift has largely happened over the course of the last decade.
Business Insider spoke to Krista Hardwick, a longtime labour and employment attorney, about how employment for retail workers has changed over the past decade. Hardwick currently serves as legal counsel at Deputy, a workforce management software company.
“If you adjust historical wages in the retail sector for inflation, they’re very, very similar in 2009 and 2019, slightly higher now,” said Hardwick.
But, retail wages in 2009 were significantly lower than what they were before the recession hit.
After the 2008 financial crisis, Hardwick said, retail wages kept tanking until about 2011 or 2012, when they started climbing back up. Only now, in 2019, have they reached the level that they were a year after the recession started.
But even though retail wages are roughly equivalent to what they were 10 years ago, retail jobs certainly aren’t. The last decade has seen a shift from full-time retail jobs to part-time jobs, which deprive non-management workers of health benefits, regular schedules, and overtime pay.
‘Struggling to make ends meet’
“Full-time jobs for retail and fast food workers are almost unheard of unless you’re a manager,” Hardwick said. “Labour is the biggest controllable cost. And so [companies] discovered that if they cut everybody down to part-time, 20 hours a week or 15 hours a week, they can hire double the workers at a part-time, hourly schedule, and not have to ever worry about having to pay any overtime wages.”
Additionally, irregular schedules that are prone to last-minute changes create significant obstacles for workers. Many rely on public transit to get to work or need to schedule childcare in advance of their shifts.
“You have folks making minimum wage, or close to it, who are struggling to make ends meet and they’re being forced to work two, three, sometimes even four part-time jobs, just to get by,” Hardwick continued.
Rising costs of living, but stagnating wages
Moreover, the federal minimum wage is nowhere near as high as it used to be relative to the cost of living. Today’s federal minimum wage is $US7.25 an hour, but in 1972, the federal minimum wage was equivalent to $US19.33 an hour today when adjusted for inflation. The federal minimum wage was last raised in 2009 and has not changed in the decade since, despite rising costs of living in most major cities.
Hardwick sees the fight for a $US15 minimum wage as a potential boon.
“In just the last two, three, four years with increasing frequency, we’re seeing municipalities passing increased minimum wage laws. I would not be surprised to see a $US15 minimum wage, at least a bill being introduced, if not legislation being passed at the federal level sometime within the next 10 years,” Hardwick said.
In July 2019, the House of Representatives passed a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $US15 an hour by October 2025. However, the bill has stagnated in the Republican-controlled Senate, and the likelihood that it will become law is slim.
Hardwick also said she fears that by the time a $US15 federal minimum wage is enacted, continued inflation and rising costs of living will nullify any progress made. Still, wages aren’t the only battleground for retail workers.
A new hope
“We’re on the cusp of this big shift now,” Hardwick said. “We’ve now got what we’re calling fair work week laws coming out in jurisdictions around the country.”
Fair work week laws, also known as secure scheduling laws or predictable scheduling laws, have two primary purposes. One is to ensure a stable and predictable schedule for shift workers, and the other is to ensure access to hours. Access to hours means that employers would be required to offer open shifts to existing part-time workers before they are able to hire new workers to fill those shifts. The hope is that fair work week laws will increase hours for part-time workers and put the possibility of full-time retail work within reach again.
Hardwick doesn’t envision a federal work week law being implemented any time in the near future. Instead, the battleground for workers has been and will continue to be at the city and state levels, where workers have already been fighting for better working conditions with some success. In September, for example, the City of New York sued Chipotle for over $US1 million, alleging that the chain violated the city’s labour laws.
However, the outcome of the lawsuit has yet to be determined. And Hardwick predicts that cost-cutting measures will continue to threaten workers’ well-being for the foreseeable future.
“You’re always going to have corporations and business owners pushing back to reduce labour costs as much as possible,” she said.
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