My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Poor

“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”

I soon realized the only way I’d have a shot in retail is if I dumbed down my job application, met directly with the person in charge before applying, and used my journalism story-telling skills to sell myself, stretching the truth past the breaking point.

It worked: I ambled into Sporting Goods Inc. on an inspiration one day, asked for an application, and then asked to see the manager. Luckily, Stretch bit on my fictional backstory—journalist-turned-community-college student, studying physical therapy in a mid-career change—and my real-life background as a lifelong athlete.

It was a perfect fit—at least in theory.

* * *

The first thing I noticed on my first day on the job is that in retail no one sits.

Ever.

It didn’t matter if it was at the beginning of my shift, if the store was empty, or if my knees, back, and feet ached from hours of standing. Park your behind while on the clock, went the unspoken rule, and you might find it on a park bench scanning the want-ads for a new job.

Another quick observation: Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.

Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.    

One afternoon, upon hearing that Sporting Goods Inc.’s top managers were set to fly in from out of town for their annual review of their retail troops, Stretch went on a cleaning binge, clearing junk from the sales floor and the stockroom. When he finished, and I saw the amount of garbage waiting for me to haul to the loading dock, I felt like Hercules at the Augean stables.

There were five or so 20-gallon bags stuffed with refuse along with several piles of empty containers, cardboard boxes, and shipping wrap. Two cases of expired energy drinks. Several unwieldy stacks of outdated, five-foot-long cardboard displays.

The garbage run came after I’d already pulled my six-hour shift on the sales floor, and done some of my usual closing-shift chores. At the same time, since the other employee on duty was a petite young woman, taking out the garbage was a solo operation. Forty-five minutes later, I’d finished, sweaty and slightly winded. Stretch turned off the lights, I grabbed my things and we headed to the door. Before checking my backpack to see if I’d stolen anything, he said, “Thanks for the hustle,” and tossed me my bonus.

A pair of socks.  

Granted, they were nice socks—high-tech, $25 wool athletic socks, something I might have purchased on impulse in better times. To the manager, it was a meaningful gesture; he seemed to sincerely want to reward me for going above and beyond my usual duties.  

But overtime pay, or some kind of financial reward, apparently was out of the question. So he gave me socks.

* * *

There’s an ongoing debate over whether Congress should hike the federal minimum wage from roughly $7 an hour, where it’s been since 2008, to at least $10 an hour.

Proponents argue that three extra dollars an hour can lift hundreds of thousands of workers out of poverty. Opponents say a raise for hourly-wage workers would keep some businesses from hiring and force others to make layoffs to stay in the black.  

As a worker who earned $10 an hour, I say: Neither argument is entirely true.

Sporting Goods Inc., I came to realize, was fine with paying me a few dollars more than the minimum wage—officially $7.25 an hour in Maryland—because it had other ways to compensate itself, including disqualifying me from overtime or paid sick days. Requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift also saved management the money it would have had to pay a cleaning company to maintain the store. Yet even $10 an hour—about $400 a week before taxes—can barely keep a single adult afloat in a city like Washington.

A modest studio apartment in a safe neighborhood would easily consume an entire month’s pay. Meanwhile, depending on circumstance, an annual salary of roughly $20,000 might not automatically qualify a retail worker for government assistance. One of my co-workers, a young single mother I called Flygirl, lived with her mom and commuted 40 minutes, one-way, from a far-flung suburb to make ends meet. Most of my co-workers, in their early 20s or 30s, had roommates, spouses, or second jobs. None of them seemed to be making it on their retail salaries alone.

Even though I was living rent-free in a guest bedroom, my every-other-Thursday paycheck couldn’t help me climb out of my hole, particularly after the state took half my pre-tax, $300 weekly salary for child support payments. Grateful just to have a job, I didn't think twice when I noticed Stretch sometimes cut me from the daily crew and kept my hours under 30 per week—until Mike, a longtime friend and a former union shop steward, explained.

"You're part-time," he told me. "If you work 40 hours or more, they'll have to give you benefits."

Because I live across town, meanwhile, I had an hour-long commute that cost as much as $10 a day round-trip on public transportation.

"Dude," my best friend Jamie said. "After taxes, you're making just enough to get to and from work each day."

* * *

Sporting Goods Inc.’s Employee Handbook has several entries about stealing from the company and its consequences: immediate termination, prosecution, imprisonment, and possible deportation. The threats were serious: I noticed about a half-dozen ceiling-mounted surveillance cameras spread across the store.

The cameras fed into a bank of monitors in the managers' office. The video feed was usually observed by a "loss prevention officer," formerly known as a store detective. In our case it was usually a young, tattooed brother I’ll call Flex, who was built like an NFL linebacker and dressed in hip-hop style: baggy jeans, flat-brimmed baseball cap, T-shirt.

When things were slow, which was often, Flex would stroll around the sales floor, browsing the merchandise, chatting up the sales crew. I often mused that his presence in our workplace perhaps had a secondary purpose: subtly reminding Sporting Goods Inc.’s employees that the loss prevention officer could probably chase you down and pulverize you if necessary.  

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Joseph Williams is a writer and veteran political journalist based in Washington, D.C.

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