Brennan Linsley / AP

US retail workers need a new bill of rights

Employees who stock retail stores' shelves, wait tables and ring up holiday sales are getting a raw deal

December 10, 2014 2:00AM ET

The holiday shopping season is the best time of the year for big retail chains across the United States. But not so much for the people who stock the shelves and ring up the Christmas sales.

As holiday gift-seeking shoppers return, retail businesses are hiring. But that does not necessarily mean employees are finding good jobs. In fact, if you find work in the slow-growing U.S. economy, it’s increasingly likely to be a low-wage job at one of our country’s retail giants.

Unfortunately for average retail workers, having a job may not be the life-sustaining endeavor it once was. The enormous profits and growth of globalized corporations are coming at great cost to many of their employees.

How abusive are conditions for employees at chains such as McDonald’s, Walmart, Barnes & Noble and Bed Bath & Beyond? Let us count the ways.

First, there’s the pay. The federal minimum wage has stagnated at $7.25 an hour, and as a recent report from Demos notes, “the typical retail sales person earns just $21,000 per year.” Many people work two to three jobs to make ends meet. Even with multiple jobs, many are forced to rely on food stamps and other forms of public assistance, shifting the burden of ultralow wages to American taxpayers. And it is not just teenagers looking for some pocket change. The national median age for U.S. retail workers is 38 while fewer than 25 percent of them were 16 to 24 years old, according to a study by the Aspen Institute. In 2012 more than a third of retail employees in New York City’s teeming retail sector had college degrees.

Then there is the lack of benefits. In October, Walmart announced plans to cut health insurance for about 30,000 of its part-time employees. Although the workers will have the option to sign up for the Affordable Care Act’s publicly subsidized health plans, the retail giant is shifting the cost of its part-timers’ health care to U.S. taxpayers. It is deeply disturbing that a profitable multinational corporation is shirking its responsibilities and making everybody else pick up the tab for treating its workers fairly.

In addition, retail managers routinely subject employees to irregular scheduling. Although many would prefer a full eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, managers can send workers home within a few hours of starting, particularly if business is slow. What’s more, big employers such as Walmart often schedule employees for just a few hours shy of what they need for full-time classification or to receive compulsory benefits.

The problem isn’t simply that employees don’t get the work hours they need. Gone, too, are the regular schedules that allow employees to predict their days off to set up doctor appointments or get their cars’ oil changed. Just-in-time and on-call scheduling practices — which allow employers to tailor work schedules to times when customers are more likely to walk in the door — are making life especially difficult for low-wage earners who juggle multiple jobs. And employees are expected to endure subpar working conditions with a smile.

These conditions have led retail workers to conclude that they need a new form of protection: a bill of rights. In San Francisco, labor activists are demanding just that, and the idea is gaining traction. In a historic victory for low-wage employees, on Nov. 25, the city’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed the nation’s first Retail Workers Bill of Rights. While San Francisco already had a law requiring the minimum wage to be pegged to inflation, the Retail Workers Bill of Rights will provide much-needed stability and flexibility for 40,000 workers at many of the city’s retail establishments.

By pursuing enumerations of labor rights at the municipal level, local advocates are hoping to make progress where Washington has failed.

“San Francisco is on its way to ensuring more men and women in our community have schedules and hours that allow them pay their bills, plan their lives and take care of their loved ones,” said Gordon Mar, executive director of San Francisco Jobs With Justice. As efforts to increase the federal minimum wage gains momentum, retail workers’ rights could be the next big agenda for advocates of workers’ rights.

Hours, wages, working conditions and scheduling were once negotiated between employees and employers. However, as the influence of unions has waned — and as national labor law has failed to keep up with the times — employers have increasingly declined to bargain with their employees on these issues. In other words, the employment compact that governed the booming U.S. job market in the post–World War II era has fallen apart.

By pursuing enumerations of rights at the municipal level, local advocates are hoping to make progress where Washington has failed. San Francisco’s new Retail Workers Bill of Rights would address several obstacles to livable wages and working conditions that service employees face. The new set of retail workers’ rights, which were packaged in two pieces of legislation, will give workers more predictable schedules, with at least two weeks’ notice. Workers who wish to have full-time hours will be given additional hours before new part-time workers may be hired. Part-timers will be given equal treatment with full-timers with respect to benefits and paid time off. 

Proposals similar to San Francisco’s Retail Workers Bill of Rights are being pushed in Milwaukee, New York and Santa Clara, California. Federal lawmakers have taken notice as well. In July, Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced the Schedules That Work Act (PDF), which, if enacted, would do away with just-in-time scheduling practices for low-wage jobs, including retail cashiers, baristas, medical assistants and restaurant servers.

Unfortunately, this legislation has stalled because of congressional gridlock. Republican control of both houses of Congress in January further dims the bill’s chances of passing anytime soon. While the local action in San Francisco is no substitute for national measures, it serves as a model for how individual cities can address labor issues that are too urgent to wait for Congress to get its act together.

In the peak holiday shopping season and beyond, retail employees help generate the profits that bolster corporate names such as Target, Starbucks and Walmart. But holidays are not just about consumerism and corporate profits. If U.S. retail employers are not willing to embrace their employees’ rights, it is up to the rest of us to support the efforts of those who are working long hours to make our season bright.

Amy B. Dean is a fellow of the Century Foundation and a principal of ABD Ventures, a consulting firm that works to develop innovative strategies for organizations devoted to social change. She is a co-author, with David Reynolds, of “A New New Deal: How Regional Activism Will Reshape the American Labor Movement.”

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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