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

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.  

But loss prevention, I soon learned, was a one-way street.

In my old salaried, white-collar life, I had the luxury of setting my own schedule, taking extra personal time if I needed it. The “flexible 40” worked because, generally speaking, my employers usually got it back when I worked through a deadline, for example, or came in on weekends to finish a project. By contrast, in the retail world, employees usually have to swipe a time card just to have lunch.

One evening, I got a stern reprimand from Fratboy, the 27-year-old duty manager when I came back 10 minutes late from my 30-minute break. It seemed I’d lapsed into flexible-forty mode and inadvertently abandoned him on the shoe floor during an unexpected evening rush.

"I know it's not a big deal," he said. "Personally, I don't care.  But what kind of manager would I be if I didn't mention it to you?"

So noted, I told him, won’t happen again. Case closed.  

The next day, however, when I clocked in a few minutes after the start of my 3 p.m. shift, Stretch sidled up to me near the outerwear rack, arms folded.

"Do you wear a watch?" he asked.   

I thought it was a joke. Of course, I answered, waiting for the punch line.

"Well, Fratboy told me you came back late from your break last night. We can't have that."

Irritated by my tardiness, Stretch lectured me on time management, including an Orwellian principle found in retail: If you arrive on time for work, you’re already 10 minutes late. Showing up early is necessary, he said, so you can "get ready to hit the floor."

In that instant, I thought of my college football days, in full gear, psyching myself up for a game by blasting rap music into my headphones. Somehow, the metaphor didn’t translate to selling Nikes and yoga pants to suburbanites.  

I later realized Stretch was invoking the principle of "wage theft"—retailers expect employees to be in position ahead of time, making their life easier, even if the employees aren’t getting paid for coming in early. There’s even a website devoted to fighting the practice.

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

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