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Thirteen percent of private sector workers in America today are employed in the retail sector, a proportion that has roughly held constant since the 1970s despite the rise of e-commerce behemoths like Amazon. Walmart, which employs approximately 1.5 million workers, is still the largest private sector employer in the country, and three of the other top 10 private employers in the United States are retail companies (Kroger, Home Depot, and Target).

Retail jobs don't pay well—the relative hourly wage of retail workers stands at only 70 percent of the average American worker's wage (down from 90 percent in 1972). Over 25 percent of those earning minimum wage in America are retail workers. In addition to the low pay, these jobs are characterized by unpredictable, inconsistent scheduling, part-time hours even for workers seeking full-time positions, and a frequent lack of benefits such as paid time off or health insurance.

In a new book, Where Bad Jobs Are Better, the researchers Françoise Carré and Chris Tilly take an in-depth look at the plight of the American retail worker. Carré spoke recently with Pacific Standard about the book, why retail jobs in America are so much worse than retail jobs in other countries, and what it will take to improve the quality of the jobs that so many Americans now rely on.


In the book, you seek to challenge the "myth of inevitability" around retail jobs—this idea that retail jobs are bad jobs due to larger economic trends, and that there's not much that can be done about it—by detailing the varying experiences of retail workers in different countries. How does the experience of a retail worker look different in France, or Germany, or Denmark as compared to the U.S.?

One thing to note is that there also are contrasts across those European countries. But probably the most simple, striking difference, which may not be the most meaningful but will strike a European the most, is that if you walk into a big box store or a supermarket in the U.S., cashiers are standing. In European countries, they're sitting.

And in all of these countries, when you compare the average wage of retail workers to the median wage of the workforce as a whole, the gap is much greater in the U.S. than it is in those countries. In other words, retail workers are better-paid. They're not well-paid—I think that's one important thing to say is that these aren't great jobs anywhere—but they are better-paid in other European countries than they are here.

And probably the second significant difference has to do with the nature of social protection, and the way it's provided in the U.S. versus in those countries. They have far more mandated social protection benefits elsewhere. Probably the most striking, obviously, is health insurance ... but also, paid time off, like vacation, and paid sick time. And these are things where workers in those countries on the whole have access, to varying degrees and in varying ways, to those types of benefits. And often, in the U.S., for the mass of workers who are not full-time and even for some of the full-timers, they don't.

Françoise Carré.

Françoise Carré.

What we observed is that it isn't one single feature that really makes a difference between the U.S. and all these different countries, or that makes a better type of retail job. It's a combination of factors. Some of them happen in the workplace and are mandated labor standards, and others are the differences in social policy.

The differences that you detail in the book are pretty significant, especially given that you're primarily comparing the U.S. to other developed countries that are both facing similar challenges—globalization, automation, etc.—and that also have large retail chains. What is driving these differences?

It's this mix of both social protection and regulations and labor standards, the latter of which is achieved through a different set of politics in other countries—a stronger labor movement, a greater tolerance of collective bargaining, and the fact that the terms of collective bargaining apply to a wider share of the population within the industry. Here, we do collective bargaining by company. There, they extend the terms of collective bargaining—at least the basic terms of collective bargaining, things like compensation and work hours—to the whole sector or industry. And then there's the different set of social protection benefits that are available to workers. Probably the most striking one that affects part-time workers in groceries, for example, is the availability of affordable childcare.

There are also product market and zoning differences. In other countries, there's more government control over how many large stores you can have in the vicinity of each other. And what the allowed opening hours are like. And what that does is it changes the calculus for management.

Now that we've established that retail jobs could be better jobs (and are in some places), let's talk about what it would take to make that happen in the U.S. You're skeptical of the idea that just encouraging companies to be more like Costco, for example, or holding up Costco's profit margins as evidence of the efficacy of this different model, is enough.

We do not think that it's sufficient. I think that there is a demonstration effect, and there is an effect of learning from others and showing there are cases where there is a win/win model.

But we essentially think that the pressures on this sector, the type of sector is such that the institutional environment in which they operate is what needs to change. We talk about, obviously, changes in compensation. The U.S. minimum wage really is the floor—hiring for entry-level positions in U.S. food stores is pegged just a few cents above the minimum wage. So changing that floor can have radical implications. Also, there's the affordability of health insurance.

The other big change is around scheduling. There's been a lot of coverage of this, but there are actually quite a number of state laws, both in effect or proposals, around some minimum set of principles around notifying workers of their schedules. And that has become a bigger issue because workers are now working in retail that might have gone somewhere else before the Great Recession who really do now need to juggle more than one job, or they need to juggle one particular job and school and these wildly fluctuating job schedules in retail are a problem. There's a fair amount of activity around fair scheduling—things like reporting pay so that, if you call a worker in, and you end up sending them home, there's a minimum couple of hours that's guaranteed in their pay so that it's not a total loss for them.

There's definitely a lot more that could be done around training and facilitating the financing of training for the retail workforce, even just to enhance the jobs and their performance, in jobs that they currently hold.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.