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Morning Feature – A Message from Your Conscience: Consider the Retail Workers

November 23, 2012

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – A Message from Your Conscience: Consider the Retail Workers

Hi, it’s your Conscience. No, I’m not here to talk about how much you ate yesterday. Waistline and Digestive Tract handle those reminders. I’m here to talk about your holiday shopping. (More)

I know what you’re thinking. “Yeah, yeah, buy more thoughtful and sensible holiday gifts this year. Nag, nag.”

Actually, that’s not what I’m here to say. Yes, I could remind you that giving your Special Someone a new putter that just happens to be the putter you wanted – when your Special Someone doesn’t even play golf – was tacky. But your Special Someone pretty much let you know that, so I don’t need to mention it.

No, I’m here on behalf of the people you’ll see without really seeing … the retail workers in the stores you’ll patronize over the coming weeks.

Okay, I know you had a retail job once, back when you were in high school or college. You mostly talked with other colleagues who were your age. Yes, I used “talked with” as a euphemism for “flirted with.” Relax. It was normal behavior at that age and you don’t do that anymore, right? Right?

My point is, your own retail work experience shaped your impression of who retail workers are. I say “retail worker” and your mind pops up an image of a teenager, or a senior supplementing a retirement income or taking a job to stay busy.

But while you’re shopping, look at the retail workers. Most of them aren’t teenagers working for gas and pizza money or seniors looking for an excuse to get out of the house. Most are adults trying to pay their bills and feed their kids. Nine-in-ten are age 20 or older, and about half provide at least 50% of their families’ income. One-in-five provide their families’ entire income.

And most retail workers who provide at least half of their families’ income … live near or below the poverty line.

Many qualify for government assistance, from the Earned Income Tax Credit and Child Care Tax Credits to direct aid like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, Medicaid, school lunch programs, and housing or home heating subsidies.

In other words, the few pennies you save on each shopping trip because retail workers don’t earn a living wage – the Demos report estimates your savings at just $18 a year – are offset by your taxes that pay for the programs to help retail and other low-income workers survive.

When billionaire restauranteurs tell you that you shouldn’t have to pay an extra 17 cents for a meal to pay for their workers’ health insurance, try to remember that you’re already paying for those workers’ health care. Right now, those workers go to public clinics or to ERs, and you pay the bill through your taxes. You don’t save any money … but the restaurant chain owner who underpays his workers gets to buy an extra vacation home.

“Those retail workers should learn some skills and get better jobs,” you think.

Yes, I hear you thinking that. But I also hear what you think when the shelves are a mess, or you can’t find the item you want or an employee to help, or you’re seventh in line at the only open register lane. Then you think: “This store should have more employees!”

Fact is, you expect retail workers to be there, to stock the shelves neatly, to help you find the items you’re looking for, and to check you out once you’ve found everything. If all of today’s retail workers got better jobs, you’d expect someone else to take their places.

Those retail workers make your life better. You can buy stuff you need, and stuff you don’t need but want anyway. You can buy stuff that, just a few decades ago, only a handful of incredibly rich people could afford. You can buy stuff that, only a few decades ago, existed only in science fiction. And you can buy that stuff at almost any hour of the day, almost any day of the year.

I’m not saying this to make you feel guilty. Guilty Conscience is over on aisle three. You and he can sort out those chocolate chip cookies. If not, Waistline and Digestive Tract will take care of it.

I’m saying this to help you feel gratitude. Yesterday was Thanksgiving, but you can stretch it a few days longer. Even a few weeks. You can’t fix our unbalanced economy all on your own. I get that. But here’s what you can do….

When you meet a retail worker, this weekend or over the coming weeks, take just a moment to smile and say: “Thank you. You do good work and I appreciate it.”

Think back to when you worked retail. Think about how rarely people said that. Think about how good it felt when someone did.

Be that someone, and I’ll be a Happy Conscience.

At least until I look at your web browser’s navigation history….


Happy Friday!

  • winterbanyan

    This is an excellent piece and an important reminder, especially at a time of year when shoppers and clerks get so frazzled by the crowds. Shoppers get impatient and rude, and believe me, that doesn’t put a smile in the worker’s day.

    It’s also interesting to read that for $18 per year I could ensure these people a living wage. I’m up for it. Hell, I’d donate it right now if I could be sure it would get to them. That’s a pittance to ensure that someone working hard to take care of my wants can actually support a family. It’s three stops at Starbucks. Or a couple of burgers at a burger joint. We can’t manage that?

    If not, it’s only because we’ve been slammed so hard on wages ourselves that such things are totally out of reach. And those are the people the rest of us need to help.

    • winterbanyan

      Oh, and I have to add that I’m really, really frosted by the “invisible” corporate welfare Wal-Mart receives by way of taxpayer subsidies to their workers who need Food Stamps and other subsidized medical care.

    • NCrissieB

      Mega-retailers have made a lot of political hay on the premise that customers would stop shopping if the mega-retailers had to pay workers more. Then they usually trot out a tale about a mom’n’pop shop whose margins are so narrow they’d go out of business if they had to pay more than minimum wage. Never mind that the mega-retailers telling those tales have been putting mom’n’pop shops out of business anyway….

      But the Demos report estimated that paying a living wage – a minimum of $25,000 per year for a full-time, year-round employees – would add less than $18 per year to the average consumer’s retail purchases. And that estimate assumes retailers passed on 100% of the increased labor costs via higher prices. If part of those labor costs was offset by lower salaries to CEOs and corporate owners … consumers would not even notice the price changes.

      Congress and state legislatures can and should act to ensure that every hardworking American with a full-time job earns a living wage and – as progressive Democratic activists – we should urge our elected officials to do that.

      But we needn’t wait for them to act. There is something meaningful that each of us can do, today and every day, as we’re out shopping. We can pay attention to those retail workers, and express our gratitude. As anyone who ever worked retail can attest … that matters … a lot.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • winterbanyan

        I only have have one quibble here: part-time workers should receive the same increased pay-scale as full-time. Else we will finish our transition to a country of full of part-time workers who need two or three jobs at a time…a near impossibility when you’re always on call, and employers won’t cooperate by giving you the same hours every week.

        • NCrissieB

          The Demos report discusses part-time and seasonal employees, and their “living wage” recommendation would apply for all workers (for businesses with more than a threshold of employees). The $25,000 income figure mentioned would be the minimum annual earnings for a full-time, year-round employee, but part-time and seasonal employees’ earnings would increase proportionally.

          I apologize for the confusion.

          Good morning! ::hugggggs::

          • winterbanyan

            Thanks. 🙂 Glad to know this!

  • Gardener

    Well-said and well-thought, as usual. Always surprising to me how the retail gang appreciates a kindly, “How are you doing?” They often seem amazed that someone cares enough to ask……

    Myself, I can’t think of a crappier job than having to deal with the public on a daily basis. IMO, the public is a real jerk sometimes, and the poor clerks cannot tell them off.

    Also please note that you can tell a whole lot about people by the way they treat the relatively powerless, clerks, servers, and attendents.

    Give ’em a break!

    Best, G

    • addisnana

      Well said, G!

      Also please note that you can tell a whole lot about people by the way they treat the relatively powerless, clerks, servers, and attendents.

      • winterbanyan

        I will second that and say “Amen!”

    • NCrissieB

      This is so true, Gardener:

      Also please note that you can tell a whole lot about people by the way they treat the relatively powerless, clerks, servers, and attendants.

      Having worked retail, and seen each of the Springoffs work retail at various points in their lives, I can verify that the Public are often not very nice. It takes only a few seconds to smile and express gratitude for good work … and all of us should do that more often.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • addisnana

    What a wonderful, compassionate and informative look at the question of retail workers. The real “welfare queens” are the corporations and corporate owners and officers who take mega bucks out of the till and ask we the people to make sure their employees can eat and have health care. I so hope that we the people can come together on the basic idea that if you work for a living, you ought to make enough to live.

    • NCrissieB

      This is an important point, addisnana:

      The real “welfare queens” are the corporations and corporate owners and officers who take mega bucks out of the till and ask we the people to make sure their employees can eat and have health care.

      Most Americans living at or below the poverty line are either disabled or are “the working poor.” They’re not lazy. They work very hard. They just don’t get paid much, and we supplement their incomes through public programs. Don’t get me wrong: I’m glad we supplement their incomes and I don’t mind paying taxes to do that. But I’d rather those hardworking Americans earned enough that we didn’t need to supplement their incomes.

      So we pay a few pennies more at the checkout line, or we pay it in taxes … while billionaires rake in an ever higher share of business revenues. They are, as you say, the real “welfare queens.”

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    I so hope that we the people can come together on the basic idea that if you work for a living, you ought to make enough to live.

    That’s the real bottom line. Kindness may brighten someone’s day, but a living wage will brighten their lives.

  • I’ve been one of those retail workers – about a decade ago – and as a result I’m much more patient than I was. What’s an interesting contrast is the two convenience stores in this town. One is “locally owned,” the other is a chain. The one that’s locally owned is always spotless, has a staff which has been there for years, good prices, and the best subs in the area. The chain has high turnover – most of the kids in town seem to have worked there at one time or another – is often messy, the staff is “in training” more often than not, and the prices aren’t all that great. I did work there, so I won’t buy a sub – or much else of their “deli food” – from them.

    • NCrissieB

      I worked at a big grocery chain while in high school, and at a locally-owned clothing store for a few months after I got out of the Marine Corps. Both were … umm … several decades ago, so I’m not sure how much of my experiences there still applies today. But the Springoffs have worked retail more recently, and their experiences largely mirror what you describe, Norbrook.

      I know it’s hard to remember when you’re in a hurry, but taking a few seconds to express your gratitude makes a big difference to retail workers. What’s more, public esteem is a leading indicator of average pay. When we fawn over bankers and CEOs as “Masters of the Universe,” they feel entitled to and get ever higher salaries. When we esteem hardworking Americans – including retail workers – we’re more likely to support policies and prices that pay them living wages.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • What I remember from working for the chain was that they were always understaffed, they expected you to do a lot of things (multitask! multitask! was the mantra), and the managers were always looking for ways to keep people under “full time” and if they were hitting the stage of being eligible for company benefits, get rid of them. I was a “rotating fill,” which meant that although I had a “base store,” I worked on an “as needed” basis for a couple of others. One of the “incidents” that was a final straw was when my manager chewed me out for having … overtime. 😯 I pointed out that she had been the one who set my schedule, and she was the one who called me in to cover two extra shifts. :roll: She wrote me up for “insubordination.” My next move was to resign. 😉 What I didn’t let her know was that I already had the job offer for where I am now. 😆

        The hilarious thing – for me, at least – was that (besides having a better job) she got in trouble with the regional manager over that. The regional manager had been really pushing me to get into the manager training program, and her reaction on finding out was … not pleasant … to the manager. I heard from someone there that they heard her yell “What do you mean he quit? What did you do?” 😆