STUDY — DISCOUNTED JOBS: How Retailers Sell Workers Short

April 26, 2012 | Salute to Scholars, The University

FOR DECADES, the retail industry provided many with a stable career path — with paid benefits and steady wage increases — but that’s no longer the case, according to a recent study by CUNY’s Murphy Institute and The Retail Action Project.

The study, Discounted Jobs: How Retailers Sell Workers Short, was based on 436 interviews with nonunion workers of large stores and national chains ranging from high-end fashion houses on Fifth Avenue to bargain-basement retailers on Fordham Road in the Bronx. It found that the median wage was $9.50 an hour, and that the majority of employees work temporary or part-time hours and don’t receive health insurance through their jobs. The researchers conducted on-site interviews at a wide range of retailers, including clothing, furniture, electronics and bookstores.

Murphy Institute professor Stephanie Luce is lead author of the retail industry study.

“Retail is a large sector and an important part of the economy. If we continue to pursue a policy of low-wage workers — with no benefits — for such a large portion of the country, our economy won’t be able to sustain itself,” says Stephanie Luce, the study’s lead author and professor of labor relations at the Murphy Institute of CUNY’s School of Professional Studies.

The study showed that half the workers surveyed earn less than $10 an hour. Seven in 10 workers don’t receive health benefits through their jobs. And only four in 10 were hired full time.

The study also found that despite the fact that women and people of color make up the majority of the retail workers, “they disproportionately face barriers to career advancement, benefits, and wage parity.”

Women, who made up about 60 percent of workers surveyed, were less likely than men to be promoted or receive health coverage. The difference in benefits afforded white workers compared with minorities — about 80 percent of the study participants — was stark. About half the white workers received a raise and promotion after working six months while only about 40 percent of black workers and about 30 percent of Latino workers had similar opportunities.

One hundred years ago, jobs that are middle-class today had similar work conditions to the retail industry, says Luce. “Look at teachers or autoworkers — they were precarious low-wage jobs — in those cases workers formed unions. People thought those industries couldn’t be changed, and yet we saw those become stable living-wage jobs.