Retail workers protest low pay and hours

In retail, 50 percent off is not the same as being off 50 percent of the time.

Kai Ryssdal: We mentioned a couple of days ago -- last week, I think -- that 2011 was a record setting year for American retail: $5 trillion in sales, give or take.

Today, though, some context for that figure. A report from The Retail Action Project -- it's a group that represents retail workers in New York -- they say most retail work is now part-time. And racking up enough hours to get by is getting harder.

Marketplace's Stacey Vanek Smith has more.

Jay Cole: This is a Facebook group page where we switch shifts.

Stacey Vanek Smith: Eighteen-year-old Jay Cole works as a cashier at Abercrombie and Fitch. He's checking a Facebook page on his iPhone. Workers from his store have set up a kind of trading post for shifts.

Cole: This one says, "Any 4-9s today? Any shifts for tomorrow, text me." Basically they're just begging for shifts. It's very competitive. Once a shift is posted, within seconds, it's gone.

The sour economy has put more workers in Cole's position says Carrie Gleason, director of the Retail Action Project, a partner with a retail union.

Carrie Gleason: I've seen an increase in unpredictability and people are not getting enough hours.

Gleason says that those constantly changing schedules put stress on workers. More than half of retail workers surveyed were part-time. A third said they're supporting their family.

Frank Badillo is senior economist with Kantar Retail. He says stores have been saving money by scrapping full-time, full-benefit positions. Part-time workers can ebb and flow with demand.

Frank Badillo: As we've come out of this recession, many shoppers have remained very value focused. That has continued to put pressure on many of these retailers.

It's not just retail workers. More than eight million Americans are working fewer hours than they'd like, says economist Tom Nardone with the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's roughly double what it was before the recession.

Tom Nardone: We typically see this go up during the recessions and then go down during the recoveries. You have people who have their hours reduced and you have people who can only find jobs that offer a part time schedule.

Eighteen-year-old Jay Cole supports himself with his part time Abercrombie job. He makes $9 an hour.

Cole: It's really tough, especially when they give you 10 hours a week, that's just $90. I have bills, like really expensive bills to pay like $500 a month.

Cole says he needs 25 hours a week to pay the rent.

In New York, I'm Stacey Vanek Smith.

About the author

Stacey Vanek Smith is a senior reporter for Marketplace, where she covers banking, consumer finance, housing and advertising.
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The number of involuntary part-time workers has exploded from 644,000 in 2006 to 1.57 million in 2010, and retail companies are scheduling workers for far fewer hours than workers would like. Jay is one of millions of underemployed Americans who are ready, willing, and able to make a living in a sector experiencing rapid growth despite this downturn.

Jay Cole's rent is $225 per month, his bills are $500 per month, and he's digging himself into a hole. I remember learning about wants vs. needs in social studies when I was a kid. Do we still teach this? Certainly not to adults...

Do you really feel that an 18 year old making 9$/hr who chooses to own an iphone exemplifys the plight of the retail worker? If anything this should be an example of choices NOT to make when living on a budget.... file this one under first-world problems.

'Sitizen' -- you may have missed this detail but Jay says he needs to check fb constantly for any opportunities to work... Smartphones aren't cheap but they are a necessary tool for many people who have these sort of jobs and receive schedule changes by email or internet..

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