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Retail workers balance financial need with pandemic risk

Marielle Segarra Nov 17, 2020
Heard on:
Al Bello/Getty Images

Retail workers balance financial need with pandemic risk

Marielle Segarra Nov 17, 2020
Heard on:
Al Bello/Getty Images

When Terri first went back to work at her retail job in June, she actually felt safer than she does now.

“Everybody was still pretty nervous and people had masks on,” she said. “And they were trying to keep their distance.”

Terri is a sales associate at an Ikea in California. We’re not using her real name because she worries about losing her job. As time went on and lots of stores and restaurants reopened, she noticed customers relaxing.

“I think that that’s when people were like, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal if these places are open.’ It’s a little bit harder to get people to understand that there’s still danger,” she said.

Some customers don’t wear masks or they get too close to her, she said. And she ends up in other situations that make her feel unsafe, like when she helps customers load online orders into their cars. She might be touching a door handle or a seat and afterwards, “I have nowhere nearby for me to wash my hands,” she said. “And if I have 20 to 30 customers waiting for us to bring our product out, I also don’t have time to wash my hands.”

So she resorts to hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes.

In a statement, Ikea outlined its safety measures, like hand sanitizer stations and plexiglass screens, and said the safety and well-being of its employees is its highest priority. 

Holiday retail jobs are difficult and thankless to begin with — the long hours, crushing crowds and blaring holiday music like “All I Want for Christmas is You” playing over, and over, and over. And this year, workers also have to contend with a deadly virus at a time when cases around the country are rising quickly

Terri would rather not have to work in retail this holiday season. But she can’t afford to quit. It’s her main source of income and she needs the job for health insurance.

Trina Traylor is in a similar position. Her main job is as a union organizer, but she picks up a seasonal retail job every year, for 25 years now. That has meant a lot of long hours and missed holidays with her family.

“I hate it,” Traylor said. “But, you know, it’s just something I have to do.”

This year, as in the past, she’ll be selling perfume for a company that operates inside Macy’s.

“I have people that are trying to talk me out of doing it,” she said.

But she needs the money for Christmas presents and to pay her taxes in April. She usually owes.

“So I don’t have a choice but to do it, but I’m very nervous,” she said. “I have one of those face shields. But, I don’t know if you’ve ever worn those face shields, you can’t even see out of them. They’re real blurry.”

Some retail workers are deciding it’s not worth the risk this year. Traylor has a friend who’s in that situation.

“She’s scared that, you know, if anything happens, that she would take it home to her mom, and her mom probably wouldn’t make it,” Traylor said.

A recent survey from Korn Ferry found that over 40% of retailers are having a hard time finding seasonal workers this year.

The survey also found that most retailers are not offering bonuses or hazard pay to attract workers, which sounds about right. Trina and Terri both said they have not gotten a pay bump because of the pandemic.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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