It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Time for Christmas songs, lights, sweaters, hot cocoa, family, and gifts. At least, that is if you look at the Christmas season through rose-colored lenses. For those who work in commercial industries and retail, the end of the year can be the most stressful and backbreaking time of the year. It’s time we give these people a break.
The massive increase in consumer spending during the holiday season means that many retailers will hire thousands of seasonal employees to handle all of the extra traffic. Amazon alone is expected to take on 120,000 temporary workers for the holidays. And according to the National Retail Federation, spending during the 2017 holiday season (November and December) is estimated to reach a whopping $682 billion, an increase from last year. To top it all off, this year’s holiday season is even longer from a consumer standpoint — Christmas on a Monday means an extra weekend for last minute purchases. All of these factors spell dread for retail employees, who already face incredibly taxing working environments at not enough pay.
At Amazon, for example, the conditions for warehouse employees are particularly grueling. In 2014, Gawker highlighted one Amazon seasonal employee who recounted working “mandatory overtime,” adding up to 60-hour work weeks leading up to Christmas (and the few days afterwards to account for people using their new gift cards). Combine this with low wages and it’s no wonder that Amazon workers in Germany and Italy went on strike during Black Friday to fight for better pay. It is also worth noting that the strikers were made up of solely full time workers — seasonal workers receive even lower pay and fewer benefits. Meanwhile, Black Friday sales helped Amazon founder Jeff Bezos accrue a net worth topping $100 billion, according to Bloomberg.
Amazon’s growth since its founding has led to a massive structural shift in the retail industry. During the holidays especially, this means that brick and mortar employers must make choices at the expense of their workers in order to compete. For Walmart, this means staying open during Thanksgiving and eliminating increased pay for work during holidays. Walmart is also different in that the massive retailer has elected not to hire seasonal employees this year — this means longer hours for associates as a result.
However, it’s not just during the holiday season that retail work is less than kind to employees. The Fair Workweek Initiative recently published their findings from a survey of over 1,000 retail workers across the country, and the results do not come as much of a surprise. The majority of the survey respondents reported poor job quality as a result of several factors including low wages (especially for women, workers of color, and part-time workers), sparse raises, unstable hours, and lack of paid leave, among others. These workers tended to be financially unstable, relying on borrowed money and credit cards to meet their needs, and displayed high levels of stress and anxiety. In addition, the survey revealed the dominance of part-time work over full-time work. While years ago it may have been commonplace to find full-time retail employees, this idea is almost foreign in the e-commerce-dominated consumer landscape of today, and most of the full-time workers surveyed said that they started out working part-time. Part-time work has its own set of issues — workers often have to keep open availability even if they do not end up scheduled. The Fair Workweek Initiative also found that upward mobility largely depended on a worker’s ability to work on short notice, rather than their actual skills or performance reviews.
With these elements in mind, it’s high time for the retail industry to support the people who make the holidays possible for the rest of us. We often think of the season as being a time to spend with family — so why don’t retail workers get the same luxury? There are simple short-term solutions that could be set into place to begin with. For example, retailers could improve working conditions by making simple changes like increasing break times, allowing workers to sit during cashiering shifts, and of course, raising hourly wages.
But short-term changes only serve to put a bandage over a much larger wound. In the long run, a much greater cultural shift must occur in order to fix the problems of retail in a rapidly changing and highly competitive economy. The entire working environment needs to change for our retail workers, and this starts by providing the same kinds of benefits that salaried workers receive. One change in particular that must happen is providing more stability in hours to retail workers — no more expectations of open availability with the fear of being over- or under-scheduled. This would allow workers to actually plan time to spend with their families. In addition, workers should not be afraid to ask for time off, particularly during the holiday season when employers are more prone to over-scheduling.
So this year, when you’re doing your last-minute shopping at the mall and find your shopping experience falling short of expectations, think of those retail workers whose already stressful jobs are made even more chaotic by our holiday demands. Offer up your sympathy because, after all, the season wouldn’t be the same without them.