January 21, 2022

Retail Exodus

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

For the past year and a half of the pandemic, I have been fortunate enough to order groceries online and drive up for curbside pickup. Not only has it saved me from exposure to others, it also saves me time and enables me to shop throughout the week on the store’s app.

When I put in my most recent grocery order, I received an email about an hour later saying that my order had been canceled. It didn’t give a reason, it just said there was a problem with my order. At first I wondered if there was a problem with the credit card or if lots of things were out of stock.

I soon found out that the whole curbside pickup department had quit. Last spring, a number of news sources reported on retail workers quitting their jobs, as other industries face labor shortages with better pay and working conditions. Here are just a few reasons, according to Business Insider:

The past year has exposed the massive demands put on retail workers, often for relatively low pay and few benefits, even as they were called heroes and essential workers. Tasked with enforcing mask mandates and interacting with customers during the height of a pandemic, abuse, harassment, and assault was not uncommon. A Service Employees International Union survey of 4,187 McDonald's workers in the summer of 2020 found that nearly half of respondents said that they had been physically or verbally assaulted.

The rudeness issue is not new, but it has been a factor for many people leaving retail. According to a January 2022 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.5 million people quit their jobs in November, right before the busy holiday shopping season. “Quits increased in several industries with the largest increases in accommodation and food services,” the report notes.

If you’ve ever worked in retail, you probably have experienced some of these poor working conditions yourself. In addition to low wages and often no benefits, you might have an unstable work schedule where your hours and days at work change regularly, often with little notice. This makes it very difficult to be a student or manage childcare or maintain another job. Throw in concerns about catching COVID, lack of sick leave, and abusive customers, and the stress can become overwhelming.

When I was in high school, college, and shortly after college, I worked in retail. I consider this both the best and the worst job I ever had. I call it the “best worst” job because it allowed me to understand what it is like to be on your feet all day and for strangers to yell at you because an item is out of stock, which you have no control over. I observed managers sexually harassing employees who felt they had no recourse because they needed their jobs and were afraid to say anything.

But I was privileged because most of the time I worked in retail it was a part-time job that I used to save money, not to pay for room and board. I knew that retail was a temporary experience and that my college degree would yield more opportunities. I didn’t feel trapped, as I can imagine many people had until recently, as new opportunities emerge. I wasn’t afraid to talk back when a manager asked me to clock out and keep working, something called wage theft, because the summer was nearly over and I would be returning to college, but I imagine many workers might not feel as though they could protest this sort of worker abuse.

In a recent survey of Kroger’s grocery chain workers, 63 percent reported not earning enough to pay their basic expenses, including, ironically, for food. Close to one half—42 percent—reported experiencing “very low food security,” and 14 percent reported being homeless at some point during the past year. And as noted above, disrespect from customers and managers were also an issue for grocery workers surveyed. According to the report:

The most frequent problems were customers who refused to wear masks, were verbally abusive, or refused to maintain social distance. A quarter of Kroger workers were confronted by customers who threatened violence, and over a fifth had violent incidents in their store.

According to Kroger workers, store managers did not support workers in a majority of the cases where workers were confronted by abusive or violent customers. Workers report that the overriding management priority during the COVID pandemic has been to maximize store sales over employee safety.

Workers also feel vulnerable to getting COVID. Workers complain that Kroger has failed to enforce well-recognized health standards, such as social distancing and mask wearing among customers.

Workplace stress has a direct impact on the emotional well-being of workers. Over three-quarters of Kroger workers say that their workplace stress follows them home in the form of ongoing depression and anxiety.

I had read a summary of this report before doing my grocery shopping after the online order was canceled from a Kroger-owned store. It was a very minor inconvenience to go into the store and shop for my own food; in fact, it is a privilege to be able to afford it and to enjoy better working conditions in my job. The manager was working at the check stand where I paid, and I made a point to thank him for all that they are doing to keep food on the shelves for us to buy.

As this Business Insider story details, the retail industry had undergone significant changes over the last several decades with the rise of big box stores, low wages, and a surplus of labor. As workers begin to have better options, it is likely that we will see a change in the culture of retail, and possibly improving worker conditions. How do you think the pandemic will change retail experiences for workers and customers in the future?


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Your point about the demands on retail workers, especially during the pandemic, is spot on. They dealt with so much – low pay, abuse, constant exposure – and it just isn't sustainable.

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