Denizens of Retail

Retail Worker

Retail Worker

Buying and selling things is the heart of economic systems. Most people I know would rather be on the production side of the equation, yet someone has to do the selling, and there is a living to be made as a salesperson.

When we lived in Indiana, one of my employees’ spouse worked in sales for a precious metals company. His job was to convince large companies to sell them spent catalysts containing platinum. In a year he had to make only a couple of sales to support his lifestyle of constant engagement with purchasing managers and key executives of Fortune 500 companies. He played a lot of golf with customers.

In another corner of the economy, there are those who work retail sales in low wage jobs. Many retailers pay more than minimum wage—they have to to attract workers. Instead of wages, they offer positions such as “team leader,” “shift supervisor,” “crew chief,” and the like. None of them pay a living wage, far from it. It is all hourly work designed to stock shelves, staff cash registers and generate sales from a corporate-designed supply chain that pays the lowest wages the market can bear. Retail workers don’t play a lot of golf.

Retail workers have more than their share of problems. Health, access to health care, relationships, transportation, housing, security, disability, abuse—you name it, problems come in almost every area of life. Financial problems are rife, and the reason many take a job in retail, but low wage workers don’t always make good decisions about jobs. The financial equation is stacked against them before they even leave the house.

This is where I part ways with people who promote increasing the minimum wage as a solution to working poor.

Discussion among low wage workers is seldom about wages, but how to sustain a life. While “extra” money would be nice, and well spent, nice doesn’t make it very far in the tough lives of retail workers. Those who advocate for an increase in the minimum wage do so from a position of privilege most retail workers don’t share. Increasing wages doesn’t get to an essential problem.

With the drive to employ part time workers with less than 30 hours per week and no benefits, a retail worker’s earnings potential caps out around $15,000 per year. In today’s environment, that’s barely enough to buy health insurance, let alone pay bills. Add a 25-mile commute, an older car with high maintenance expense, expensive banking services, physically demanding work, and other complications of working poor, and retail workers enter a trap from which there is no escape. As others have written, it is expensive to be poor.

There will always be a need for workers at the low-wage end of the scale. A system that recognizes all kinds of work and rewards it with the ability to sustainably live an honorable life is lacking. Money can’t solve that problem, even if it makes some feel better about themselves.

Social justice will take more than giving alms to the working poor, including the denizens of retail.

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