The Pandemic Gave Retail Employees a Break

And now they don't want to go back

Workers employed in low paying jobs in the service industry didn’t have much time to stop and take stock of the business until a global pandemic forced the issue.

I talked to some of those workers about what the job is really like and why, at least for now, they won’t be going back.

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“No one in this situation can afford to quit”

Retail is an unforgiving business. Staff interact with the public and are expected to be “on” at all times. The relentless tension of always being ready to put on your game face and perform is wearing. And while retail work isn’t for everyone, those who are suited to it are the the ones who then bear the brunt of abuse from customers and management alike.

“I have known a lot of great colleagues who would otherwise be suited for this type of work who suffered (or still suffer) because of unacceptable treatment from the public and employers,” said Melissa, a longtime retail employee who ended her work in the business just before COVID hit “out of sheer luck.”

Melissa now works for Narcotics Anonymous. But what she saw during her time in the industry makes clear that retailers take advantage of their position as the employer of last resort for many people living on the margins. Those without the option to leave the business tend to take the most abuse—they can’t sit down during work hours, can’t take sick days, and often take jobs without benefits or paid time off.

“I've been witness to sexism, racism, and just run of the mill manipulation and abuse that should have been cause enough to quit on the spot because of how illegal it is,” Melissa said. “No one quits, because no one in this situation can afford to quit.”

Diane, a former Sephora cashier, told me that she’s never going back to the company—or any retail position—after getting out from under the company’s abusive treatment of workers.

During Diane’s time with the company, Sephora would post schedules one day before the work week began and workers weren’t allowed to sit down without permission. As former employee Violet Moya described in a New York Times opinion piece last year, the company required what amounted to an NDA when it laid off workers due to COVID. Diane was one of those workers.

“I would literally rather have an income of zero dollars and live in a car than step foot inside workplaces like that again,” Diane said. “I genuinely would be happier homeless and I mean that.”

“Their strategy on rehiring staff is just assuming we'll come back at the same pay”

Restaurants have received the lion’s share of attention in recent stories about the labor market, but shopping outlets and retailers have been largely ignored (though not completely—read, for example, my reporting last week on Dollar General employees who walked off the job).

The retail industry continues to bleed staff, but business owners appear uninterested in improving working conditions and pay—while still complaining nobody wants to come back to work.

Ary Reich, a former floor member at the National Museum of Mathematica in New York, lost his job less than a month after the beginning of the lockdowns. Now, he told me, the museum says former staffers can come back to work—but refuses to negotiate with them.

“They required a bachelor's in math to work there, and they still paid minimum wage,” Reich told me. “If you had a master's degree and a teaching certificate, you could lead some teaching sessions for $18 an hour.”

The museum was short-staffed even before things closed down last year. Now there’s nobody to work the floor, as far as Reich knows.

“Their strategy on rehiring staff is just assuming we'll come back at the same pay,” Reich said.

“I’m not lazy”

Like the other people I talked to for this and other articles, unemployment benefits were a boon for Reich. He told me that he “hated working there before the pandemic but needed to pay rent,” and now that benefits and aid are allowing him to cover his bills, he’s taking the opportunity to make a change.

“I'd work there for more but not if I can make the same amount looking for better jobs,” Reich said.

Government aid helped Terry, a former stocker at Lowe’s in the beginning of the pandemic, find better work. Terry wanted out before the pandemic, but it was hard to see how.

“I was and still am terrified of covid, but I really didn't have any other choices for work,” Terry told me.

A family member’s medical supply business was kept afloat by PPP loans and then reaped the benefit of increased hospital demand.

“PPP loans helped keep us alive while hospitals had temporarily froze all spending and then all of a sudden came roaring back with demand,” Terry said.

Diane, the former Sephora worker, found the idea—promoted by business owners in the press—that government aid is contributing to worker “laziness” offensive. Rather, the benefits allowed her to reevaluate her participation in the retail industry as a whole.

“I’m not lazy and avoiding work,” said Diane. “I used those resources and time to cultivate a better life for myself. It’s built a strong case for higher wages and universal income and I have no sympathy for employers who can’t afford to provide better.”

Thanks for reading. As I said above, your support makes these stories possible, so if you’d like to make a monetary subscription to help fund my reporting, please become a paying subscriber and sign up for a monthly or annual donation.