Retail workers are fed up and rage-quitting, and the tight labor market could help them score the better pay and benefits they’ve demanded for years

Taari Coleman - a NC Raise Up activist - holds a 'Fight for 15' at a Charlotte, North Carolina teach-in.
What’s next for retail workers? Mike Comer/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network
  • Retail employees are demanding better pay and working conditions.
  • They’re leveraging the demand for labor as retailers struggle to fill job vacancies.
  • Experts say the tight labor market positions the retail industry for a reset as the economy reopens.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Many retail workers are fed up with their jobs. For years, these employees have bemoaned the low wages, stress, and lack of respect they say they face at work.

The pandemic has only amplified their concerns. Workers at major retailers have been rage-quitting, striking, and generally making their unhappiness with the industry known.

Now, a tight labor market could give these employees unprecedented power to demand lasting changes in the industry, experts say.

“Retail workers are leading a movement and turning public praise during the pandemic into good jobs that can create meaningful, lasting change in their lives,” Bianca Augustin, the research director for workers’ rights group United for Respect. “Never has there been more support for the idea that everybody employed by a major corporation should receive at least $15/hour and 40 hours/week, adequate paid sick leave, and a voice on the job.”

In the twilight of the pandemic, the evidence seems to point toward certain important gains for retail workers – like small, permanent pay increases as well as more leverage for and choice of individual prospective employees. But that doesn’t mean that a complete overhaul of retail work is imminent.

Common retail industry practices, such as relying on low-paying part-time jobs, are still entrenched within the business, experts say. And returning to “normal” after the pandemic could mean a return to low pay and more stress for many retail workers.

Consumer demand is rising faster than retailers can hire

Chris Tilly, a professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, said it’s hard to make predictions about what’s next for the labor market, but noted that consumer demand appears to be outpacing retailers’ ability to staff stores. That gives more leverage to workers.

“I don’t think we’re at a point where workers have permanently gained the upper hand, but I would be cautious about saying exactly when the power is going to shift back more to employers,” he said.

The central problem is that “retailers are having trouble attracting workers at the rates of pay that they’re offering,” according to Tilly, who has studied unequal labor conditions and their effects.

“Consumer demand is expanding faster than people are able and willing to go back into the labor force,” he said.

University of Massachusetts Boston professor Françoise Carré said that retail jobs have been particularly grueling during the pandemic because of their “frantic pace” and employees’ fears over catching COVID-19.

Still, she said that some retailers may be looking to wait out the tight labor market.

“Maybe some retailers are speculating that, ‘Well, there’s all these unemployed retail workers sitting around waiting to see some kind of revival with the clothing stores and all the other categories of retailers that were closed,'” she said. “‘Maybe I’ll have no trouble.'”

McDonald’s franchisees in Florida have blamed the tight labor market on unemployment benefits – despite the fact that only one in 28 Americans turned down jobs to stay on unemployment. But keeping with that logic, the retail industry would see a return to the status quo as soon as the pandemic comes to a close and enhanced unemployment benefits end.

Retailers looking to wait things out are likely in for a rude awakening, according to Krista Hardwick, the legal director of Deputy, an international shift-work management company.

“I don’t think that the labor shortage is going to resolve itself or just kind of go away as a lot of businesses are hoping,” she said.

Workers are claiming small victories, but have a long way to go

One way workers can win higher pay and better benefits is through organizing with labor unions. But only 4.1% of retail workers belonged to a union in 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

President Joe Biden is more open to worker-friendly causes – like a national $15 minimum wage – than his predecessor, but a vote on such measures hardly seems imminent.

And while a boost to the federal minimum wage would help, it wouldn’t address many other pervasive frustrations with retail work, such as inconsistent shifts, poor benefits packages, and a lack of childcare.

“It’s not surprising that these kinds of jobs are not appealing to workers who have some level of choice in the matter,” Tilly said.

Retailers that don’t make changes to attract workers could suffer consequences, Hardwick said.

“Some businesses are taking a wait-and-see approach and banking on the fact that workers are going to have to come back,” Hardwick said. “But I don’t know – it’ll be really interesting to watch. I think that workers aren’t going to want to come back to work at places that aren’t treating them fairly.”