A large majority of the 436 New York City retail workers surveyed for the newly released study Discounted Jobs have at least some college education. They've been working in retail for an average of five years, and half have been at their current job for more than a year. Half of them earn less than $9.50 an hour, only 29 percent get health care through their retail job, and of the 44 percent who do have paid sick days in theory, only 54 percent have used a sick day—in many cases due to pressure from their managers and fear of retribution.
What the report, by City University of New York professor Stephanie Luce and Naoki Fujita of the Retail Action Project, shows is an educated, experienced workforce in an industry that makes it virtually impossible for workers to make a living. Even the most educated workers, who earn more than others, earn poverty-level wages:
For those with a Bachelor’s degree, the median wage was $11.50 per hour. With a median of 36 hours per week, a retail worker with a Bachelor’s degree could expect to gross just under $22,000 a year. Respondents with an Associate’s degree had a median hourly wage of $10 and 32 median weekly hours. This results in an annual gross income of $16,640, assuming year-round employment.
And, as the chart above shows, there's a significant racial gap in wages, with Latino workers with two years on the job averaging a slightly lower pay rate than white workers with less than six months on the job. As a preview of the report, which I wrote about in December, made clear, women are also paid less than men.
One explanation commonly offered for such wage differentials within an industry is that the lower-paid groups aren't as qualified for the higher-paid jobs in the industry. In this telling, white men in retail are just more likely to have the qualifications needed to work the more desirable jobs and get more raises. Another study of New York City employment offers a rejoinder to that notion. Sociologists Devah Pager and Bruce Western conducted an audit study, in which they had matched teams of young men with similar attributes and (fictitious; created for the study) resumes, but of different races, apply for entry-level jobs. In some cases, a white tester was given a resume that indicated he was a recently released felon, while his black and Latino counterparts did not do so. Pager and Western found that, in the teams in which no one indicated a criminal record, the white man had a 23 percent chance of getting a positive response, the Latino man had a 19 percent chance, and the black man had just a 13 percent chance of a positive response. In the teams in which the white member was supposedly a felon, those white members were about as likely as the black and Latino non-felons to get a positive response.
That part of Pager and Western's study speaks to how likely people of different races are to be offered work at all. But they also found significant racial channeling, in which black and Latino applicants for jobs involving contact with customers were instead offered back-of-house jobs—applying for a job as a salesperson or waiter, they were offered a job as a stocker or a dishwasher. White applicants, on the other hand, were sometimes channeled upward, asked to apply for a waiter job rather than the dishwasher one they'd asked to apply for. The only white testers who were channeled downward were those who claimed to be felons, while black testers were channeled down in 10 cases and Latinos were in four cases.
These were, remember, applicants who had been chosen to be similar to each other—race aside—down to their very height, then trained to behave similarly while inquiring about jobs, then given matching resumes (except in the cases of the white testers who were given prison records). The disparate results they experienced in their "job searching" demonstrates the role that employers play in creating racial disparities in pay such as the Luce and Fujita "Discounted Pay" study finds.
Pay isn't the only racial disparity the workers Luce and Fujita surveyed experience. Scheduling is a major issue for these workers (as anyone who has read Lightbulb's diaries here at Daily Kos will be well aware). More than half of the workers Luce and Fujita surveyed were classified as part-time employees, though 30 percent of the "part-time" workers reported sometimes working more than 40 hours in a week. Many reported various forms of schedule-related wage theft, such as not being paid overtime when they should have been, or being called in for a shift, then sent home quickly and not paid for a four hour shift as New York law requires. But even without wage theft, scheduling is problematic for workers:
Only 17 percent of workers surveyed have a set schedule. Thirty percent know their schedules more than a week ahead of time, and the rest - over half - only know their schedules within a week, with about a fifth getting their schedule within three days notice.
Try making child care arrangements when you don't know your work schedule ahead of time. Try budgeting for food and to pay your bills when you don't know how many hours you'll be working in any given week.
Like wages, scheduling problems fall differently on different racial groups:
One of the great brutalities of the retail industry today is that workers are, on the one hand, not given the hours they need to make a living, but are, on the other hand, expected to be always available to come in to work with little notice. For poverty wages, companies demand absolute control over their workers' schedules—and, this study finds, the burden falls most heavily on Latino workers and least on white workers. Luce and Fujita identify how "hours are the new bonus," given as rewards or taken away as punishment. Rather than offering raises, managers just give a favored worker more hours.
Though this study focuses on New York City, the struggles these workers face are common throughout the nation. Many of the retail industry's abuses would require massive and complex societal change. Racial discrimination, for instance, is hardly confined to retail, and while the worst instances of discrimination may be subject to some kind of legal remedy, most cases are much more subtle. Pager and Western, for instance, found cases in which their black and Latino testers were told a position had been filled but they'd be called back if the new hire didn't work out. That doesn't sound like discrimination, until you know that their white teammate was hired on the spot. And most job applicants don't go around in matched teams to know when that's happening.
But Luce and Fujita's study does point to some relatively simple ways retail work could be improved. First, we could enforce the laws we already have, so that if you work overtime, you get paid for it and so that employers can't call a worker in then send her home after 15 minutes and pay her only for that 15 minutes if the state law requires she be paid for a four hour shift. (Obviously managers would be a lot less likely to call people in for just 15 minutes if they actually had to pay for four hours.) Protecting and enforcing the existing legal right to organize, too, would help, since union contracts often deal not only with wages and benefits but with scheduling, and can help reduce racial and gender discrimination by standardizing wages, benefits, and schedules.
Luce and Fujita also point to laws that cities and states can pass to improve things for workers. Congress may not be passing living wage or paid sick leave laws anytime soon, but some cities and, in the case of Connecticut and sick leave, even states have done so. Given the truly wretched state of affairs their study reveals, this is an important fight to wage at any level of government we have even a small hope of changing.