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Posts Tagged ‘low-wage jobs’

The endless fight for a living wage: is $15/hour really too much?

In behavior, business, cities, culture, life, Money, news, urban life, US, work on November 6, 2013 at 2:55 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

The federal U.S. minimum wage remains $7.25. Five states have no set legal minimum at all; six pay more than $8.00/hour.

(The minimum wage in Australia is already $15.00.)

In an era of almost $4/gallon gasoline and rising costs for food, health care and other necessities, the fight to win a living wage continues.

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington

Official seal of SeaTac, Washington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The city of SeaTac, in Washington State, is fighting this battle today.

From bbc.co.uk:

Supporters of Proposition 1 say $15 an hour is a “living wage”.

Detractors say that it would see businesses close and lay off some of
the 6,300 workers who would be impacted by the raise.

SeaTac covers just 10 sq miles (26 sq km) and has a population of just 30,000, with only 12,000 registered voters.

But what everyone agrees on is that tiny SeaTac has suddenly become a battleground for one of the biggest issues confronting the US economy – income inequality, or the widening gap between the rich andpoor, which has risen to its highest level since 1917.

“Coming out of the recession, we’ve seen job growth come out of the low-wage service sector,” says Prof Ken Jacobs, head of the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center.

The battle is pitched — desperate workers struggling to make ends meet against employers who insist they cannot possibly pay more.

Or that workers simply offer little to no skills, certainly none they value at that price.

The state of New Jersey — with 50,000 workers employed at minimum wage — will raise its lowest legal wage January 1 to $8.25/hour.

Like every argument, this one contains a blend of truth and perception, of assumption and received wisdom.

One of the issues is really thinking harder about what constitutes a “skill.”

Here are my thoughts, quoted recently in U.S. News and World Report, about what it’s like to work retail.

I worked a low-wage job from September 2007 to December 18, 2009 when the economy fell off a cliff and I desperately needed additional income. I sold costly outdoor clothing and accessories for The North Face, in an upscale suburban mall in New York, a 10-minute drive from my home. I earned $11/hour with no commission, few bonuses and a 30-cent raise in that time.

I typically sold $150+ worth of merchandise every hour; my best day ever, I sold more than $500 worth per hour.

And the company’s “reward” for selling $25,000 worth of its merchandise, virtually all of it sourced from low-wage factories in Peru, China and elsewhere? A gift card for the same merchandise worth $25.

You can exhort your workers and plaster mission statements to your walls, issue edicts, wave your hands…It’s tough for any worker to get excited — or “engaged” as the workplace gurus like to call it — when you’re toiling for pennies and earning significant profits for the person who relies on your labor.

Let alone a major multi-national corporation whose top executives now stagger home bent double with the bags of cash they’re netting — now typically 354 times the wage of their average worker.

When you can’t even pay your bills, no matter how hard you work, work loses much of its meaning.

And all of its dignity.

In January 2009, our store manager cut all our hours. I was only working one seven-hour shift, then cut to five hours, one of which paid for the cost of parking at the mall. We were told “the company can’t afford more.”

That month The Wall Street Journal reported that the parent company of The North Face was sitting on millions in cash — money it used in 2011 to purchase a competitor, Timberland for $2 billion.

The assumption being that no one working a low-wage job would notice this odd and striking definition of “can’t afford.”

I did, and wrote about this in my book about my time there, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, which was published in China in July 2013.

malled cover HIGH

I do realize what happens when you pay workers poorly — they quit! I’ve been hiring part-time assistants for more than 15 years, when I paid a college undergrad $12/hour for her skills. Jess was amazing: smart, funny, a quick learner and a ferocious work ethic.

That was a lot of money then, and for some workers, it still is. I’d have simply felt embarrassed offering her less; I recently heard from an undergrad at a prestigious American university that a professor offered them $7.25/hour, which I find appalling and abusive.

When I pay $10/hour I can find smart and talented people  — but only for a few weeks, a month or so at most. They leave quickly, as they must, to make more elsewhere. At $15/hour I was able to keep the skills of someone else this year for more than eight months.

Hoping to replace her, (as she now seeks a full-time job), I recently interviewed someone who came highly recommended…and who wants $25/hour.

That’s my breaking point. So, for now, I am mostly assistant-less, and feeling that loss in my reduced productivity.

The pricing of our labor is a delicate dance. But tight-fisted employers who insist that low-wage workers have “no skills” are lying to themselves and to their weary workers.

They’re also short-changing their customers, who need, expect and deserve good service for their hard-earned dollars.

Here are some of the skills we used in our retail work:

– Maintaining a sense of humor (let alone having one to start with!)

– Listening carefully and for long periods of time to customers to discern their needs

– Speaking to customers in whatever style/tone/speed (even foreign language) best suited them

– Learning and memorizing a wide array of product knowledge: size/price/technical specs

– Lifting, carrying, stacking, folding and hanging goods

– Cleaning and tidying the entire store, top to bottom

– Ringing up purchases

– Watching the sales floor to deter shoplifting

No skill?

Snort.

Try calming a shrieking one-per-center threatening to “call corporate” if you fail to meet her demands.

Try helping a mentally disabled teen sort through all his jacket options to find something he loves that fits

Try explaining to a Saudi prince’s servant which down jacket will keep the princeling warm in his first New York winter.

walmart beijing

walmart beijing (Photo credit: galaygobi)

When Walmart employees suck up taxpayers’ money in food stamps ad Medicaid because their cannot earn a living wage...we’ve got a problem.

A 2004 study by UC Berkeley’s Institute for Industrial Relations found that, in California, the average Walmart employee required over $500 more in total public assistance than workers from comparable large retailers. Families of Walmart workers required 40% more health care assistance and 38% more in other kinds of public assistance (like food stamps, subsidized housing, and school lunches) than comparable families of large retail workers.

In addition, a 2006 report by the Philadelphia Inquirer found that Walmart had the highest percentage of employees enrolled in Medicaid in the state; one in every six of Walmart’s 48,000 Pennsylvania employees was enrolled. Finally, in January of 2012, the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services found that Walmart employees and families were the top recipients of Medicaid, food stamps, and cash assistance in the state.

The American worker is being subjected to a fierce game of chicken — who will blink first? Who will cave most quickly to imperial corporate demands, like these, made to the mayor of a small, economically-strapped town in Idaho:

Another economic rescue with Hoku’s glamour and promise is not on the horizon. Mr. Blad, in an interview in his office, said a big employer had recently expressed interest in coming here, bringing perhaps 1,000 jobs. But the company, which he declined to name — a warehouse distributor that does most of its sales over the Internet — has said it would offer $10 an hour, only a few dollars above the minimum wage.

The company even had the audacity to ask for financial incentives, which the city has politely declined. “We would welcome them, and we would value them,” Mr. Blad said. “But I can’t justify taxpayer dollars for a $10-an-hour job.”

What say you?

Are you working for (or paying) minimum or low wages?

If you’re earning so little, do you have an exit strategy?

What’s your Plan B?

In aging, behavior, business, domestic life, family, journalism, life, Media, Money, politics, work on October 10, 2012 at 1:49 am
United (States) Parcel Service.

United (States) Parcel Service. (Photo credit: matt.hintsa)

Van Morrison — one of my faves — has a new album out, Born to Sing: No Plan B.

I’m eager to hear it, but it also made me stop and think…what’s my Plan B?

I have a few, but so far haven’t had to put them into action.

With decent French and Spanish skills, and my interior design training, I feel fairly confident I could pick up a job — albeit likely entry-level — in that field. Worst case, I have a Canadian passport and citizenship and another country in which to legally job-hunt, if necessary.

But I sure don’t want to start a whole new career, which many of my fellow journalists were forced to do after 24,000 of us lost our jobs in 2008; I’d love to do a story and find out where they have gone. I know one, a man in his 50s, now in culinary school in Florence — but he already owned a home there and has a high-earning spouse, both of which are damn helpful if you have to re-tool, certainly in your 50s or beyond.

As the American economy continues to eject too many people from fields they’re good at and like and pay them well, and thousands of others don’t (yet) have the requisite skills for a new career, whether as an X-ray technician or software designer, it’s a very real and pressing question.

A few days ago, I had a long, lovely breakfast with a good friend, a single woman a bit older than I who needed nine monthswith excellent skills — to land her last job in our field, journalism. In those nine months, she ran through her savings.

After she went home from breakfast, she emailed me: “Laid off.”

Holy shit.

When does this stop?

Will it ever?

If I had kids, which I do not, the only skill I’d suggest they develop to its fullest is the willingness to do whatever it takes to survive economically, pride be damned. I saw an ad this morning in another diner, hiring for waitress, delivery and hostess spots. I called my friend and told her. It’s not her dream job and it’s sure not in her field and God only knows what the pay is like.

But the key word here is hiring.

In 2007, terrified after working so hard through illness I got pneumonia and landed in the hospital for three days with a temperature of 104 and needing an IV, I gave in/up and took a part-time job, selling clothing at The North Face, an outdoor clothing company, for $11/hr. No bonus, no commission. Very few raises (like 30 cents an hour.)

I stayed 27 months, finally leaving December 18, 2009. I only left after I was able to replace that income with something else, then as a paid blogger for True/Slant, earning $400 a month without having to stand on my feet for seven hours. (That gig abruptly ended five months later when Forbes bought it and fired almost every one of us who had created the audience that made it attractive. Doncha love it?)

Plan B is never enough. We all, now, need Plans C-Z.

I was able to write a book about that experience, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail”, and interviewed many others nationwide in the retail industry as well. I also got some cash from CBS, who optioned it for a sitcom, which did not happen.

It looked like a Plan B might have shown up, unbidden, as a creative consultant on that show, which would have guaranteed me a  nice four figures every month. Didn’t happen. (It’s being read now by three film/TV agents and I’m pretty optimistic someone else will pick it up.)

I’ve gained some income as a paid speaker since then, but haven’t been able to win the consulting gigs I’d hoped. (Turns out the retail industry has more “consultants” than a dog has fleas, and they all guard their lucrative turf jealously.)

So the success of any Plan B, (or C-Z), hinges on a number of factors:

– Can you segue into another industry, transferring some of your skills, at anywhere near your current earning power?

– If not, how much of a hit can you take and for how long? Forever?

– How much time have you got, really, to learn an entirely new set of skills? Days, weeks, months or years?

– Who is going to pay all your bills, and those of your dependents, as you do?

– Who’s going to pay your tuition or training fees?

– How supportive of this is your partner or spouse? What if it means, as it often does now in this recession, losing 50% or more of your previous income?

– How will you fund your retirement if this is the case?

– What about age discrimination? Everyone over 40 faces it and anyone over 55 is toast.

– How much physical stamina do you have for grueling jobs like retail or waitressing? (Foodservice and retail are the two single largest sources of new jobs in America, yet both at extremely low wages.)

– Do you need to sell your home and/or move to a new area? What if you lose that job?

Have you had to move to Plan B, or beyond?

What did you do?

If you did have to, what would it look like?

You Should Be Ashamed

In behavior, business, Crime, life, Money, women, work on January 13, 2011 at 1:35 am
Entrance to Lewis's department store, Liverpoo...

Image via Wikipedia

Want to score some freebies?

Try this — ripping off retail associates.

As suggested (nice work, fellow journos!) in Cosmopolitan magazine.

Yeah, screwing over low-wage employees in a recession is really a rockin’ idea.

The Race To The Bottom Continues: 500 Applicants For A $13/Hr. Job

In business on October 28, 2009 at 4:18 pm
NEW YORK - JANUARY 08:  People walk past a 'Cl...

Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Once a week, I put on an official shirt and shoes, loop a lanyard around my neck with a little plastic badge with my first name carved into it, and go sell merch for The North Face, an international chain of outdoor clothing, with 23 stores in the U.S. I was hired there September 25, 2007 and did it to earn some extra, steady cash, to get out of my suburban apartment and the relentless isolation of working alone at home all day, with no kids or dog for distraction and company. I’d never worked retail in my life. Never had to, never had a huge desire to. But it’s paid work and I am now lucky to have it.

I make a fat $11/hr., no commission. Last week, in my seven hour shift, I moved $3,650 worth of product, $521.42 worth per hour. No one said “Thanks! Great job!” or high-fived me. I went home, showered, went to bed.

Every week, I think, OK, it’s time to quit. The work is not terribly interesting and the learning curve flattened out a long time ago.

Then, every week, yet another magazine or newspaper — my primary source of income for the past few decades — closes, cans its staff, cuts its freelance budget, tossing hundreds more competitors into the pot for the dwindling amount of freelance work available. I read there are six extremely well-qualified applicants for any available full-time job. So, I stay.

I spoke to my manager today — after reading today’s Wall Street Journal story about how retailers (surprise) will be cutting back on labor this holiday season and hiring fewer temporary workers. He asked if I could work some more hours in November and I said yes. I had planned to add hours in December, when the store will really need veterans who know our stuff and our team. In this economy, any steady work is a rare and valuable commodity. So is someone who knows how to do their job well, certainly the physically tiring job of retail sales.

I went shopping yesterday in Manhattan and came home fuming with the incompetence I saw in almost every store. At Sephora, where I wanted to enjoy finally cashing in a gift card, two of the associates did not speak English and I had to cross the store in search of help. In the worst recession in this nation in 40 years, I actually do expect competent help from anyone who still has a paycheck when millions do not. Silly me.

And firing someone in this economy can make for a terrifying, ugly scene. Our manager finally let someone go from our staff — who returned the next day and made physical threats. My partner was in a local Staples last week and watched a young man, just fired there, shrieking obscenities at the top of his lungs at every manager in sight. This went on until the police came.

I find this economy confusing, these behaviors both understandable — and mystifying. If even the crummiest jobs are so hard to win and so deeply coveted, why not do them really well?

Here’s a recent front page New York Times story about the insane fight for a $13/hour clerical job – 500 people applied and a 28-year-old woman won it.

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