What Has COVID-19 Really Been Like for the Retail Store Employee?

The daily challenges of the retail worker are often overlooked or disregarded by the shoppers they serve.

While nurses, doctors, teachers, pilots and other essential workers have drawn some acknowledgement, the efforts of frontline store employees are not treated with the same regard, workers said. This despite the fact that companies have profited off their labor during the pandemic or relied on them to keep stores open in order to emerge from bankruptcy.

Frontline retail staff make up a significant portion of the workforce. There were 9.8 million cashiers, retail salespersons or first-line supervisors in 2018, accounting for roughly 6.3 percent of the overall U.S. workforce, according to a September report from the U.S. Census Bureau. A significant portion of that workforce comprises “young, less educated women earning low wages” and people of color, according to the report.

Referring to retail workers soldiering on in the pandemic, Miriam Cherry, coauthor of “Invisible Labor: Hidden Work in the Contemporary World” and author of “Work in the Digital Age,” said, “They really are heroes in so many ways in all of this — people working in stores, people doing deliveries. It’s just been amazing how great this has been. And yet this is always the concern, ‘We appreciate your work, but do we appreciate you as a worker?’”

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As a law professor, associate dean and codirector of the Wefel Center for Employment Law at Saint Louis University, Cherry said she has been considering the nature of essential work versus essential workers. “We know that there is work that needs to be done to keep people safe, to keep the economy working and to keep people getting what they need in terms of food and other goods. But do we really appreciate the people, who are putting their health at risk in some instances?” she said. “That’s going to be a really big question.”

The conditions of the pandemic have energized the labor movement and pushed more workers to speak out about their working conditions, and to question why there are so few states that mandate paid sick days, and why so many workers, particularly in the gig economy, fall outside the traditional definition of employees (including those taking on roles that shift workers used to do), Cherry said.

In addition to the safety concerns of working during the COVID-19 crisis, a spot check with retail employees indicated their financial constraints during the pandemic. And with the mass exodus of city dwellers who are seeking more suburban retreats, the security of affordable housing — already a concern for many before the shutdown — has only intensified.

Retail workers, members of the nonprofit United for Respect, march in New York City in February 2020. 

Kellie Ruzich, 30, Walmart meat department worker in Minnesota

Getting through frigid winters in Hermantown, Minn., means stocking up on fuel. To endure a cold snap in February, Kellie Ruzich and her husband, who both work at a Walmart nearby, had to spend $700 on fuel alone — an entire paycheck for Ruzich, a meat stocker who makes $12.84 an hour. 

Ruzich is one of what the worker advocacy group United for Respect estimates are roughly 760,000 hourly workers at Walmart who will not see their wages increase as part of the latest round of raises the retailer announced in its fourth-quarter earnings in February. 

Walmart has said it will increase wages for some 425,000 digital and stocking employees, whose starting pay will now be increased to between $13 to $19 an hour, according to the company. Walmart has said the move would effectively raise its average hourly wage to more than $15 an hour, which is also the target figure of an ongoing federal minimum wage hike movement directed at Congress. In 2019, a Pew Research Center Survey found that roughly two-thirds of Americans favor a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The current $7.25 federal minimum wage has not increased since 2009, despite inflation and the soaring increases of other essential living expenses, including housing, education and health care. 

The retailer’s pay for warehouse workers is also more than $15 an hour, according to the company.

“The digital and stocking work groups are fast growing and present many new opportunities for associates to grow their careers and we encourage any interested associate to speak to their supervisor about openings in those work groups,” a Walmart representative said in a statement. Additionally, it is very important to understand that Walmart offers careers, not just jobs because we’re investing in our associates’ long-term success through a combination of wages, benefits, training and creating a ladder of opportunity.”

In the meantime, however, workers in other departments are still subject to lower wages, as Walmart’s minimum pay remains at $11 an hour. For workers making less than $15 an hour, who don’t qualify for raises, it means strained budgets that make it difficult to afford to take unpaid time off, said Ruzich, who has worked at Walmart for the past three-and-a-half years in a number of roles, including apparel and stocking.  

For her family of five — the couple has three young children: a three-year-old daughter and roughly five-month-old twins — Ruzich said having a $15-an-hour wage would mean having more resources to pay bills, being able to afford better groceries and the ability to build a savings buffer for rainy days. 

One of her main concerns during the pandemic, when she has had to encounter defiantly unmasked customers despite Walmart’s official policy for staff and customers to don the face coverings in stores — has been the risk of falling ill and being unable to afford to take time off, she said. 

“I had customers that would get up in my face and say, ‘Well, that person’s not wearing a mask, why do they get to go into the store?’” she said. “[But] we only have so much power to tell people, ‘Hey you need to wear a mask while you’re in the store.’

People [who get COVID-19] can be out sick for a month,” Ruzich added. “I couldn’t afford that right now.”

Ruzich and her husband cannot afford day care right now either, she said, so they manage the care of their three children through a staggered work schedule, where Ruzich works during the days and her husband works nights, as a stocker and setting up store floors at Walmart. Ruzich works 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. shifts five days a week, while her husband works the night shift from roughly 11 p.m. to 10 a.m., she said.  

Having the minimum wage raised to $15 an hour would offer more breathing room for basic expenses, and potentially even some recreational experiences for her children, she said. “[I] can’t afford to take them to the zoo or aquarium, or fishing or camping.

“A $15-an-hour wage would mean I could pay my heat bill,” Ruzich said. “I could put money away in case I have to miss work.” 

In February, the abrupt obligation to spend a paycheck on fuel cut into their budget for groceries. “That makes it hard to pick out healthier foods and stuff like that for meals,” she said.

An assistant store manager (name withheld) at a Levi’s store in California

With 13 years of total retail experience, the employee typically works between 37 and 40 hours a week. Last March, the store temporarily closed until June. The employee and their coworkers had reduced shifts at one point. Located in an outdoor shopping mall, the Levi’s store they work at is one of the few to have reopened fitting rooms. While their job is to help customers navigate which products would be best for them, some shoppers are primarily interested in trying multiple styles on and then shop online for deals.

“What they don’t understand is that all of the items our customers put on, we have to put into quarantine for a certain period of time,” the assistant manager said. “We steam it before putting it back on the sales floor. Potentially, that could create a lot more work for us.”

Living a few miles from the store helps to save on gas expenses and they spend $1,000 a month for an apartment they share with a roommate. Their truck is paid off and bringing food to work helps to minimize other work-related spending, the employee said. An hourly wage of $21.15 only goes so far. Asked about other monthly expenses, they said, “Yeah, it’s a lot. I definitely barely get by. The area is still really expensive. Some months can be tough.”

On occasion, they try a new restaurant as a way to give back to that impacted industry and the community. Periodically, they pick up contract work for photo shoots, and helps build and manage props on the set.

As for pandemic-induced changes, “A lot of people have been cut, our hours are reduced, but the workload is the same, if not even more. I see my coworkers and myself under more stress, in addition to dealing with the public. Some customers don’t wear masks or don’t have masks. So we’re under this constant exposure on top of that.”

Victoria Bowen, 24, assistant manager at Lucky Brand at the Barton Creek shopping center in Austin, Texas

While many people falsely assume retail workers fold clothes all day, as Bowen noted, they’re also running a business, working with numbers every single day, paying attention to traffic, considering what’s affecting why people are or aren’t visiting the store and how sales are. A typical work week is 32 to 40 hours, five days a week and often including weekends. Both of Bowen’s parents ran their own businesses so she grew up pitching in at her mother’s children’s wear store.

Prior to the coronavirus crisis, she earned $19 an hour, but that was reduced by $3 due to the shutdown. Living alone, her monthly rent is about $1,000 with an additional $800 earmarked for utilities and iPhone charges. “I’m pretty tight with money spending wise,” she said, adding that she brings food to work for meals unless she absolutely can’t, doesn’t go out very much and won’t buy any frivolous things. “I watch my bank account and make sure I’m not going crazy.”

TJ Williams, sales associate at Lids in Jacksonville, N.C.

With the Marine Corps military base Camp Lejeune and a U.S. Navy Recruiting Station nearby, Jacksonville is not impacted as much as other cities by national economic challenges, according to Williams. “No matter what’s happening in the world, the military is always going to get paid regardless. We live off of them. We’ll be fine.”

With people abiding by self quarantining and social distancing, customer traffic has made business “not as booming as before the pandemic, but we’re still OK.”

Living a few blocks from the store, Williams walks to work. As for his salary, he said, “I prefer not to talk about the money part. I don’t do that with anybody, not even my own girlfriend.”

One financial matter he was willing to discuss was federal stimulus checks. “Please. Please. Whoever Mr. Biden has to talk to — the House, the Congress — please make sure they push through the stimulus checks because it would be helpful for everybody.” (President Joe Biden signed the stimulus bill on Thursday, setting in motion his administration’s plans to send $1,400 checks to those eligible.)

Asked whether he has any side jobs, Williams said, “Does sleeping count? All I do is come [to work], go home and go to sleep. I’m a very boring person. Well, they say it’s safer that way.”

Samantha Esty, sales associate at the Michael Michael Kors outlet in North Conway, N.H.

With three years of retail experience, Esty earned $30,000 annually as a full-time employee. Sharing a three-bedroom apartment with roommates, her monthly contribution is $400. To keep phone expenses down, she uses Straight Talk for $35 a month. Esty said she buys things “all the time” for herself, as in once a week, with a $16 Rue21 shirt being her most recent purchase.

Following safety guidelines, she and other store employees wear masks, sanitize regularly, maintain social distancing and wash their hands frequently. Having to keep a safe distance from shoppers inhibits her from showing them as much merchandise as compared to before the pandemic, she said.

The coronavirus crisis has also affected store traffic. “This winter has been a lot slower and we have less to do than last year. The days seem longer,” she said.

Ashley (surname withheld), retail associate at Torrid in the Oak View Mall in Omaha, Neb.

After slipping on the ice and falling on the mall’s unsalted sidewalk in February, Ashley said she lost a day’s pay and had to visit the emergency room.

“I’m trying to fight the owner of the mall to get my bill paid,” she said.

Earning $37,000 annually, she and her husband spend $1,100 for monthly rent. Studying behavioral health in graduate school is another expense — $25,000 a year. Monthly utilities and iPhone costs total about $600, and transportation including car payments amounts to $400. “I don’t think people understand that we want to be here and to do our jobs as best we can, and help our community because that’s what we aspire to do. People think it’s an easy job, all sunshine and roses, and it’s really not,” she said. “Making sure everyone is taken care of is something that I love doing. When complications arise, the cooperation isn’t there. People yell at us still for having to wear a mask even though the entire world is in a pandemic. They still don’t want to help their fellow people.”

Accommodating shoppers while social distancing is not an issue with phone orders increasing and associates placing selections for in-store shoppers in dressing rooms, she said, noting that business has been picking up lately. When not working an eight-hour shift, Ashley spends the rest of her time at home. All in all, she said, Torrid is “amazing. Our CEO takes good care of all of her employees. That goes from workers in the higher-up end and down to the retail stores. No one is forgotten.”

One of her incentives for getting a behavioral health degree is to become a better manager. “Working retail is not an easy job. We have a lot of hardship. You’re on your feet eight hours a day, making sure that everyone who comes in is taken care of. Back in the ’50s, [retail] was one of the higher paying jobs and you had to know more than what was being taught. People are forgetting that the art of retail is still happening. We want to help people find clothes that make them feel more confident. We also want to remind them it’s not how your clothes fit, but how you view yourself. We spend a lot of mirror time looking at ourselves and thinking we’re not good enough. But at our store, we’re looking in the mirror making sure [customers] see themselves as someone who is beautiful and is going to go out and conquer the world, because she matters.”

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