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Understanding Retail’s Volatile Moment

A new survey offers insight on the unstable job conditions for retail workers.

When you do your holiday shopping this year, keep this in mind: the cashier ringing up your purchase likely worked part time at some point in their career. There’s a chance they’re borrowing money or using credit cards to pay their bills. Their income and schedules can be volatile. And it’s incredibly difficult for them to move up the career chain.

Thanks to the Fair Workweek Initiative, a project anchored at the Center for Popular Democracy, we now have a better picture of the lives of retail workers around the country. The group published their survey, “Job Quality and Economic Opportunity in Retail,” earlier this November. spoke with Carrie Gleason, the director of the Fair Workweek Initiative, to talk more about the survey. “There’s this moment of disruption that’s happening right now in retail, and we wanted to get insights into where we are right now, and also understand how people are imagining the future,” Gleason told

Gleason’s been organizing retail workers since 2005, and has seen a lot of trends unfold over the past decade. One of the biggest waves she noticed? The move towards a part-time workforce. “I saw this massive shift to a low road,” Gleason said. “I saw the chaos that unfolded in a lot of people’s lives who I was working very closely with.”

The survey confirmed that part-time workers are far more vulnerable to erratic incomes and hours, and see fewer opportunities for growth. But Gleason also noted that 60 percent of the full-time workers they interviewed had worked part-time jobs in the past — a statistic she found troubling.

“What we’ve seen in retail is that actually there’s a lower rung. And it starts now with a part-time job. And it’s not just, ok I’m going to work part time and work my way up to a full-time job. It’s like an obstacle course to get to a full-time job. So you have to be available all the time to really just get a few hours a week.” For workers with families, that means kids often have to adapt to ever-changing workweeks, which worries Gleason. “It’s super important to set up healthy, stable routines, but for people who are working in the retail economy, it’s impossible.”

Hopefully, that awareness will help compound some of the legislative successes that retail workers have won in recent years. Cities and states are passing a range of policies to improve working conditions in the retail industry, from higher minimum wages to paid sick leave. Gleason emphasized new regulations in several cities and states that require companies to provide transparent, reliable schedules, and to confront underemployment by offering more shifts to part-time workers before hiring new staff.

“There’s been unbelievable momentum these last few years. For a labor standard that basically did not exist three years ago, we’ve seen six cities, the state of Oregon, and soon the state of New York pass new standards around work hours,” Gleason says.

Now, the Fair Workweek Initiative is looking to expand to a more integrated approach. “It’s no longer just a question about labor standards. We need to have guardrails on Wall Street, and we need guardrails around technology. The next round of store closings is not just going to just be private equity, it’ll be private equity joined by robots.”

One factor complicating that fight: some companies are also pushing back against the victories that organizing groups have already had at the ballot box. Businesses are already asking Congress to shield them from local paid leave laws. “There’s a battle right now where cities and states actually are stepping up and recognizing that all of their hard work — there are people in Congress right now are trying to take that away.”

But Gleason still sees opportunity in this political moment. “In this crisis there’s actually a lot of hope that people are getting more active and recognizing that we can’t take what we won for granted, but that also there’s a lot that we can do to protect people’s lives right now.”

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