At first glance, it looks like a small revolution is happening in retail.
Nearly 650,000 workers in the sector quit their jobs in April, the biggest number in over 20 years, as Abha Bhattarai reported at the Washington Post. Driven by a combination of low wages, Covid-19 risks, and harassment from customers, many are leaving their retail jobs behind in search of something different. “My life isn’t worth a dead-end job,” Aislinn Potts, a former aquatic specialist at a pet store, told the Post.
It’s a hopeful story, and one that we’ve heard about in a variety of industries this spring and summer, from leisure and hospitality to higher-paid professional jobs. Workers have the power now, the thinking goes, and if they’re not happy with their jobs they’ll just find better ones.
Unfortunately, some say, that’s not the full picture. Yes, high numbers of workers are quitting across the economy — a total of almost 4 million people quit in April, or 2.7 percent of all workers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they were moving on to better jobs — wages across industries haven’t meaningfully risen, meaning workers who quit aren’t, as a whole, making more money, Heidi Shierholz, senior economist and director of policy at the Economic Policy Institute, told Vox: “Really key wage measures are just not showing strong growth.”
Money isn’t the only factor, either. Some retail workers are leaving their jobs for roles that may have better conditions — for example, jobs in construction or warehouses where they may not have to deal with difficult customers. But some say it will take more than the fluctuations of a post-pandemic job market to really give workers meaningful power, in retail or elsewhere. Unless the surge in quitting leads to greater unionization and policy shifts like a higher minimum wage, Shierholz said, “it’s not going to be a lasting change.”
Retail workers have faced low pay and tough conditions for years. The pandemic made it worse.
Even before the pandemic, a lot of retail jobs weren’t good jobs. In 2017, the typical pay for full-time workers in the sector was less than $33,000 a year, not enough to live on in many places. And unpredictable schedules left many workers scrambling to arrange child care or transportation at a moment’s notice, never sure if they’d get enough hours each week to pay their bills. Jobs in the industry were largely “considered stopgap jobs” with low status and low pay, Peter Ikeler, a sociology professor at SUNY Old Westbury and the author of the book Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains, told Vox.
Then, when the pandemic hit, those jobs also became dangerous, as employees at grocery stores and big-box retailers like Target and Walmart had to work in person while others sheltered at home. Among members of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union alone, at least 158 grocery store workers have died of Covid-19 and at least 35,100 have been infected or exposed — and numbers for the industry as a whole are likely much higher.
It wasn’t just grocery workers who faced risks. Crista, who asked that their last name not be used, told Vox that working as a dog bather at a Texas PetSmart this winter “made me feel really unsafe.” The doors to the grooming salon were kept closed at all times to keep dog hair and barking noise inside — the room was essentially a “steel tube, where you’re in there with up to eight people at a time,” Crista said. What’s more, “my coworkers would be in there, talking, eating, singing, just whatever, without their masks on. And I was just kind of stuck in there with them.” For this, Crista made $11 an hour.
“Nothing is more important than the safety of our teams and pet parents, and since the beginning of the pandemic, we have continuously directed our stores to adapt business practices to meet or exceed all applicable health and safety guidance, as well as other best practices for retail store operations,” a PetSmart spokesperson told Vox in a statement. The company did not respond specifically to a question about grooming salons.
Some companies, like Kroger and Lowe’s, offered bonuses last spring in recognition of the increased risk workers were facing. But many of those expired by last summer, and retail pay today remains low — around $13 an hour for many workers. PetSmart did not offer hazard pay, according to workers, though the company says it offered “special thank-you bonuses” to employees.
Then there are the customers. Harassment and rudeness are a fact of life in many retail jobs, even under normal conditions. One of Crista’s coworkers faced racist insults from a customer, an all-too-common problem across the sector. And customers would often yell at groomers over things like not being able to provide a certain cut or service for a dog — “really small things that nobody should be yelled at over,” Crista said. “It happened almost daily.”
Add to that a new layer of conflict for many workers during the pandemic, as customers lashed out over masking and distancing rules. In the absence of clear enforcement from managers or local authorities, workers were often the ones having to tell customers to mask and keep their distance, leaving them vulnerable to abuse. In February, for example, a customer at a King Soopers grocery store in Colorado slapped a worker after being asked to wear a mask. And earlier this month, a cashier at a supermarket in Georgia was fatally shot after a dispute over masks.
Given all this, it’s no surprise that retail workers are quitting their jobs and looking for something different. After all, many remain in fear for their health after more than a year as front-line workers. The risks are especially high in parts of the US with low vaccination rates, especially as a relaxation of mask mandates and other restrictions could allow the virus to spread unchecked among unvaccinated people. The vaccine, while available to all Americans ages 12 and older, also isn’t always accessible — no federal law requires employers to offer paid time off to get the shot or recuperate from potential side effects.
Retail workers who have concerns about their current jobs may also have more options than before. With the economy reopening and many businesses looking to hire, “there’s a demand for labor across sectors,” Ikeler said. That means workers have a better shot at finding something “other than front-line, often precarious retail work.”
Indeed, there’s anecdotal evidence that some workers are leaving retail for jobs where they don’t have to deal with customers. Bob Beall, for example, told the Post that he left his job at a Lowe’s store after mask requirements made it hard for him to understand customers, since he is deaf. His new job, in facilities maintenance, pays less and requires him to work nights but doesn’t subject him to the “mental fatigue” of handling shoppers.
Crista, for their part, left their job in January: “I was weighing the risk of, do I potentially bring Covid home to myself and my family for what amounts to basically poverty wages?” They went back to a previous job at another dog-grooming salon, where the work is “not customer-facing at all,” they said. “I don’t have to interact face-to-face with people, which is a huge relief after some of the attitudes and tantrums.”
Workers feel more empowered to quit now. But will they get better jobs?
It’s not yet clear if workers leaving for less-customer-facing positions is a larger trend across the economy. The sector with the most job growth in April — the month when a record number of retail workers quit — was leisure and hospitality, an area where most jobs also require customer service.
The hospitality sector is also an area where wages tend to be low. And there’s no evidence that large numbers of workers who quit are getting better-paying jobs, Shierholz said — if they were, wage growth would be stronger across the board. Crista, for their part, is making 50 cents an hour less than they were at PetSmart, though they said “it’s worth it just based on how much more calmly my day goes.”
Some retail workers may be quitting for other jobs in the retail sector that offer a signing bonus, Shierholz said. Amazon, for example, recently announced signing bonuses of up to $1,000. That amount of money can make a big difference for someone working a low-wage job. But it’s also not the same as a higher wage that a worker can count on for months or years.
Quitting itself can be an expression of autonomy. “The implicit threat that you could quit your job is basically the only power vis-à-vis the employer that a non-unionized worker has,” Shierholz said. And the fact that people are actually doing it in huge numbers shows not just how fed up they are but also that they have a certain level of faith that they’ll find a new job.
Some of that confidence may actually come from the disruption of the pandemic, Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor studies at CUNY, told Vox, a time when many retail workers were laid off, furloughed, or had to take time off to care for children or other family members. “They may realize, ‘I was able to stop working for a couple months and survive and so I can now imagine doing that again,’” Luce said. The pandemic “gave breathing space for a lot of workers to rethink: ‘I have to go back to work. And now what should it be?’”
But the fact that workers may have more choices, for now, isn’t yet translating into better choices. Overall, it’s not clear that the spate of workers quitting really means they have more power in the economy — power to demand not just a new job but one with higher pay, better conditions, and fairer treatment from customers and managers alike. “We are in a period of such unbelievable flux in the labor market that weird things are happening” as the nation (hopefully) emerges from the pandemic, Shierholz said. But the effects of the pandemic, including workers quitting their jobs, are not going to “somehow undo the four decades of policy changes that have led to wage suppression for low- and middle-income people.”
To make retail jobs better in the long run, the country needs to make big changes
That doesn’t mean those changes can’t be undone, however. What it would take, many say, is a combination of legislative change and worker power.
It starts with a higher minimum wage. “The hourly wage obviously needs to be higher, particularly in a lot of places that are still at the very bottom,” Luce said. In Texas, for example, the minimum wage is just $7.25 an hour. By contrast, worker advocates say that a true living wage in some parts of the country is closer to $24 an hour. The Raise the Wage Act, passed by the House of Representatives in 2019, would lift the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, but has struggled to gain support in the Senate.
Beyond that, the country also needs to make a cultural shift away from the idea that “the customer is always right,” Crista said. “You have to always be smiling, and always be affirming, and never basically stand up for yourself, even if someone is yelling at you,” they said. “That’s such a toxic relationship with retail employees in their workplace, that they have to just sit there and take abuse.”
Workers also need consistent scheduling so they can arrange child care and predict their income from week to week. And more broadly, “[workers] themselves know best what they want,” and having a union is the best way to advocate for those goals, Luce said.
Recent years have seen some growth in public support for unionization as well as the formation of new unions and other groups of retail workers, like Target Workers Unite! and Crew for a Trader Joe’s Union. And union membership in retail has gone up during the pandemic, from 4.7 percent of workers in 2019 to 5.1 percent in 2020, according to Modern Retail. But that’s still a small fraction of the industry, and some of the rise could be due to the fact that non-unionized workers simply got laid off.
To help workers form unions, Shierholz said, Congress could pass the PRO Act, which would get rid of so-called “right-to-work” laws at the state level that actually undermine unions. That way, workers would be able to use the “power that comes from joining with their coworkers,” she explained.
Though Crista isn’t part of a union, they are a member of United for Respect, a nonprofit that advocates for retail workers’ rights. Through the group, “I’ve been educated a lot on why these corporations are doing things the way they are and how we can change it by putting pressure on the right people or organizations,” they said.
“People don’t really know how important their voice is,” Crista added. “If you speak out against something, and you have enough people speaking out with you, things really can change.”