Service sector jobs, those in the retail and restaurant business, have been the backbone of the economic recovery in the United Sates. Reports over the last few years show that the vast majority of new jobs being created and touted by politicians are in those areas of the economy. But it is a disturbing trend to economists and other experts who are concerned with the growing income gap in the country. The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
Stories flooded newspapers, airwaves and the internet around the holiday season as frustrated workers in fast food restaurants and Walmarts staged walkouts demanding more money. President Obama responded, in part, by making the minimum wage a key issue in his State of the Union address. Senate Democrats have rallied to the president’s cause by proposing a hike in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. Such a hike could pull some 900,000 above the poverty line, says the Congressional Budget Office.
But lurking beneath the problem of low wages in the retail industry is a far more insidious problem. While workers may very well get a bit more money in their paychecks, their quality of life will not likely improve. The reason is that retail work is becoming ever more demanding of one’s time.
Retail used to be the go-to industry for a person who had to juggle childcare and a spouse’s full-time job. It used to be the obvious choice for college students (that and waiting tables). And it used to be an option to bring in a little extra money while finishing a professional degree. Retail employers stressed that the hours were flexible. Most retail establishments, especially the big ones, are open far more than the regular 40 hours per week. So for a person who needed to work some evening shifts, some midday shifts and some morning shifts, it seemed like a good fit. Parents and students could piece together their 40 hours through a range of hours throughout the week.
Those days, it seems, are coming to a close. Most retail giants are now demanding that employees make themselves available at all times. The flexibility must now be provided by the employee, and not the employer.
Many employees are now given a choice: work as a part-time employee with no guarantee as to the number of hours you will be given, or make yourself available for 40 hours, any 40 hours, and keep your full-time job. Gone is the flexibility that was once promised and gone, possibly, are the hopes of having an income while finishing that graduate degree.
If a college student wants flexibility in a job while in school, that student can have it, but they may only get to work 15 hours a week. In a sector that doesn’t pay well to begin with, that certainly can’t be enough income to have any money left over to start paying off student loans upon graduation.
Powerful scheduling software has been developed over the last decade by large companies like Kronos. The software, tied into a company’s time clock system, can break schedules down into 15 minute blocks. It can then schedule employees for shifts ranging from four hours to 12 hours, stacking a store with employees during its peak business hours. It is a great benefit to the stores, which save millions of dollars a year in labor costs. But it makes the schedules and lives of full-time workers nearly unbearable. Workers can be asked to work any given day for nearly any given amount of time. Such schedules take a toll on families.
To say nothing of the fact that the once promised flexibility is gone, imagine the life of a person unable to give up a full-time job. For many, retail has been a career. Coaxed in by the vanishing flexibility, they now find themselves stuck in a full-time job they can’t afford to leave and not knowing when their company will require them to work from week to week. Days off change, hours change, and shifts change. The only way to gain any control in the system and get the flexibility back is to resort to the far less stable part time work that would not guarantee the hours needed to pay the bills.
Last year, CBS News ran a story on this phenomenon. The story highlighted the case of a radiology student working for women’s clothing retailer Juicy Couture who was left in this very dilemma. The student ended up losing her job.
Many file stories like these away with other stories about an increasingly part-time workforce. Some blame new healthcare laws as the likely culprit, arguing that large retailers are hedging their bets against rising or unknown healthcare costs by forcing workers into part-time positions. But the problem may well have deeper implications. Work-life balance has always been a big issue for high-powered executives and higher paying jobs. People blazing a career path can often times forget to stop and smell the roses or spend time with their kids and spouse. But retail has always been an alternative for people seeking more time to pursue other interests or just time to spend with their families.
Retail jobs have one benefit: they can’t be outsourced. That means they are here to stay, barring a massive shift to online purchasing. As our consumer economy continues to pick up steam now that it is finally recovering from the recession, these jobs are growing in number. If the president is successful, the people who choose to work them may even get some money for their trouble. But the old benefit of flexibility is likely gone, and even less likely to come back.
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