Laid off, and finding a different world in retail

The cover of "Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail"

Steve Chiotakis: We'll get April retail sales numbers later this morning. Macy's already reported its sales were up in the last three months. The retail sector of course is recovering like others, after the beating it took during the economic downturn.

A time when people like journalist Caitlin Kelly were taking second jobs at shops and department stores to make ends meet. Kelly has written a memoir about her experience working in retail and she's with us now. Good morning.

Caitlin Kelly: Good morning.

Chiotakis: Like many during the economic downturn, you were laid off. And you took this job in retail at this upscale, outdoor apparel store, The North Face.

Kelly: I had been freelancing, I'd write for the New York Times, things were going fairly well. But the recession hit journalism much earlier than it hit some other industries. I'd never worked retail. I was 50, and I thought, you know, I just need some part-time income.

Chiotakis: You spent some time in the book about the disparity between what the industry takes in and what workers make in wages and benefits. Did those numbers jibe?

Kelly: The disparity is quite extraordinary. The median wage is sort of between $8 and $9 an hour. When I was at The North Face in January of '09, my manager -- as many did in retail around that time -- said, 'We're going to have to cut your hours. The company just can't afford all those labor costs.' And at that time, the parent company sat on $382 million in cash. That disparity to me was somewhat striking.

Chiotakis: I want to talk to you about one line that you had in your book about toggling between the working class and the chattering class. What do you mean by that?

Kelly: I saw my coworkers struggling. So they were taking civil service exams, for example, to become a court officer or a police officer -- you know, a good solid $50,000 with a pension. And my friends in journalism, making, you know, six-figures plus, winning prizes, writing books. And I sort of wanted to put them in a room together and say you guys should have a conversation about what work really means.

Chiotakis: There were so many people -- educated people, like yourself -- who were laid off and are under-employed or were under-employed. Is that what this book is about?

Kelly: I think we're at a point that many people, regardless of their terrific education and credentials, are just saying, 'You know what, I have to feed my kids. I have to put gas in the car.' So I think in this economy, employers do have an extraordinary labor pool, but the challenge is managing them well.

Chiotakis: Caitlin Kelly, journalist and author of "Malled." Thank you.

Kelly: Thank you so much.

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