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Posts Tagged ‘The North Face’

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?

The Third Rail Of American Discourse

In behavior, books, business, journalism, news, women, work on June 23, 2011 at 2:30 pm

My new book about working for 27 months as a retail sales associate has been out for two months, and the 40+ amazon reviews are insane — love it, hate it, love it, loathe it.

I’ve been called a princess, racist, slummer, bitter, pretentious, “lazy, lazy, lazy”, elitist and accused, falsely, of despising the very people — my retail co-workers — I say clearly how much I admired.

It’s been an exhausting rollercoaster, with a pendulum of opinion swinging so widely, and wildly, it’s hard to believe.

It took a fellow writer to calm me down, pointing out that “Nickeled and Dimed“, a best-seller from 2001 by Barbara Ehrenreich (to which my book has been compared) is equally provocative and divisive.

Both books are similar in one key respect: middle-class, educated white women — with economic freedom to leave the jobs we described — worked for minimum wage in thankless, difficult, demanding low-status jobs.

Our crime in so doing? Poverty tourism. Slumming it for a book deal, as one WNYC listener commented. We weren’t destitute.

Why did we need to be?

Would this have altered our observations or the accuracy of what we saw and heard?

We’re writers and our goals were the same: find and tell powerful stories that had not been told. The people living these lives, working these jobs, do not have the time, skill or freedom from the shackles of their jobs to tell it as it really is.

I’ve also received extraordinarily personal and heartfelt emails almost every single day since” Malled” appeared:

“Have you been sitting on my shoulder for 23 years?”

“I feel bolstered by your book!”

“I got a raise last year….of 10 cents an hour.”

The filthy secret of American life is economic disparity, the great myth that we are all equal and racing one another along a smooth and level playing field to the equally-accessible goodies of income/home/education/raises/promotions/career success.

Go to college! Work hard! Suck up to your boss! That’ll do it.

Nope.

The reality is that there is no level playing field. It looks more like a greasy pole, the rich at the top, the poor at the bottom and many of us now, four years into a recession filled with record corporate profits and sluggish hiring, scrambling desperately in between.

Here’s a sobering piece in Mother Jones on how much dough corporations are raking in, and how workers aren’t getting the benefit of their labor.

I think speaking truth to power, despite its putative appeal, makes Americans deeply queasy. What if I somehow wrecked your chances, or your kids’, by being rude to the Guys With The Money?

Bowing and scraping to anyone with a payroll is the new black.

I worked for The North Face, owned by the VF Corporation; in January 2009, our hours were cut because the company could not afford them…then sitting on $382 million in cash. (They just spent it to buy Timberland.)

Look at the WalMart class action lawsuit, thrown out this week, screwing thousands of hardworking women employees out of the hope of justice. Of working a full-time job and not needing food stamps to supplement their wages.

Which is worse — ignoring these behaviors and letting business reporters keep fawning over eight-figure-earning CEOs?

Or have people like me or Ehrenreich try our best to open the door to the creepy, greedy, nasty behaviors that drive so much of this economy?

Either way, millions of workers are being screwed.


“Malled: My Unintentional Career In Retail” — On Sale Today!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, entertainment, journalism, life, Media, Money, women, work on April 14, 2011 at 11:06 am

Finally!

My new memoir, which tells the story of retail work in America, is out today from Portfolio. It’s been getting terrific reviews — Entertainment Weekly calls it “an excellent memoir” and Herb Schaffner, a columnist for Bnet compares it to the best-seller “Nickeled and Dimed”, calling Malled “reality journalism at its best.”

I’m thrilled by the reception it’s gotten, with interviews and reviews, so far, from USA Today, The Financial Times, The Washington Post, the Associated Press and Marie-Claire. I’ll be a guest on NPR’s Diane Rehm show, with two million listeners, on April 19; on Marketplace and on WNYC’s Brian Lehrer Show on April 20.

I’ve also been invited to write a guest post for the Harvard Business Review blog.

My goal in writing this book is to make retail work — and the 15 million employees who make their living doing it — better understood. We all shop! The American economy, even in a recession, relies heavily on consumer spending, but we rarely talk frankly about what that demands of those workers, many of them part-time, with no benefits, earning low wages with little chance for raises or promotions.

I worked as an associate in a suburban New York mall, with some very wealthy customers, from September 2007 to December 2009, so this is also a portrait of the deepening recession and other workers who are taking low-wage work to make ends meet. I interviewed many others, from Costco CFO Richard Galanti to consultant Paco Underhill to best-selling author and owner of five elegant clothing stores, Jack Mitchell.

Like me, like this blog, “Malled” pulls no punches. It’s sometimes funny, sometimes dark, always honest.

And, yes, there’s plenty of outrage!

Wal-Mart has so far spent $2 million fighting an OSHA order and $7,000 fine to make their stores safer during sales  — after an associate in their Long Island store was killed when shoppers stampeded over his body.

Is this really what we want for our low-wage workers?

The sad thing is that such treatment is considered normal. In 1892, F.W. Woolworth disdained the notion of paying his workers a living wage — his business model, discount goods, simply didn’t allow for it.

I hope you’ll check it out at malledthebook.com, where you can read the introduction and Chapter One free.

You’ll also find there a listing of my many upcoming readings and events, most in and around New York City and some in Toronto; I’m talking at 10:00 a.m. on May 28 on the downtown campus of my alma mater, The University of Toronto.

The book also has a Facebook fan page; I hope you’ll “like” it and spread the word! If you enjoy “Malled”, I’d love it if you’d write a review at amazon.com

And here’s a funny/spot-on flow chart on what it takes to get a book published…

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