It is a temporary tool. Get your money and then get the heck out.
Photo by Ashim D?Silva on Unsplash
I can hear them chiming in already: I work retail and retail is a real job! It?s my career! I have been working at the same store for 20 years and as a general manager, I will attest that it is a lucrative field! Retail pays my bills and fulfills my life! Defenders of working customer service for life, people who just ?get retail,? rushing to rectify the bad rap that the service industry has garnered for itself as low-paying, unsustainable, and, in a word used by many ex-service workers, hell.
I may be biased to speak on this, but I am also qualified. When writing doesn?t cut it for paying all the bills, I take up a retail job or two (or three when I?m delusionally optimistic that it?s not that bad), and settle for menial work and ridiculously low pay in exchange for some stable paychecks flowing in. Work-life balance flings itself out the window, I swap wholesome meals prepared myself for endless bowls of microwave mac and cheese, hours of sleep dial back from 7 to 6 to 4 because there aren?t enough hours in the day to both work, sleep, and relax/come down from the high stress of a day of working two jobs where no one is ever happy (not customers, not associates, not management, and definitely not corporate).
In case my tone doesn?t give me away, I am jaded about the service industry. In the past two and a half years, I have worked at a handful of popular retailers, even the ones hailed for being the best workplaces around. With every first day, my tolerance for BS has depleted just that much more. Initially, I thought the toxic work culture, perpetual stress, hours that fluctuate from 5 hours every two weeks to 39.75 per week (can?t have a full 40 hours, then they?d have to pay *spooky voice* benefits) were unique to the first retail job I picked up. After several other positions followed at totally different companies, I realized that, nope, this is as universal to the industry as minimal wages and ridiculously high sales/production goals.
While guzzling down the retail kool aid (or tossing back shots of it), it?s easy to think that these are all things that one should put up with. To fight back is to risk losing the job, quitting in a heat of inspiration with no back up, getting on management?s bad side and thus suffering a cut in hours, and therefore ending up broke, homeless, unemployed, and unable to crawl out of severe poverty seems inevitable.
Retail workers brainwash ourselves to believe that this job is normal, reasonable, even likable. At every retail job I?ve worked, suicide jokes are rampant. As are hospitalizations from workers who seemed physically healthy but severely over stressed. And as are stress quits, where an employee calls a few minutes before their shift to announce that they will not be returning to work ever, not even to pick up their last check.
Service jobs can be highly demoralizing and by the time one sees how much crap has piled up, the temptation to quit before the next shift is almost too great to resist. I have rarely seen employees put in a two week?s notice in retail. When turned in, two weeks notice?s are often declined or reduced even if the worker is willing to work out their final pay period. In this industry, it seems pointless to give payroll to someone who will be gone in two weeks when the hours are already spread paper thin.
Every time someone quits in retail or food, there is an air of liberation. In my experience, after one person quits, at least one typically follows. The idea that we are not trapped, that we do not have to put up with getting yelled at by strangers, pressured to reach unattainable sales goals, be on call at all times to come in when others don?t show up for shifts; that we have agency and free will and worth as human beings that is more than just $8.75 an hour before tax gets lost in the day to day crazy-making that is service work. And then, after a couple days of ranting, we forget about that moment of clarity, and duck our heads back into the sand. We need the money, point blank. Losing a small paycheck makes a big difference when there?s nothing to replace it.
Working retail creates a conflict in me from time to time. I know that I am being underpaid and overworked. I know that the sales I make on highly overpriced product trickle up to corporate and help them out, while I am not even making enough in a paycheck to afford a pair of jeans with my employee discount. As badly as I and my coworkers are treated, the workers in countries across the world away from the U.S. who manufacture the products we sell are certainly treated far, far worse. It feels awful to wait around hoping for somebody ? anybody ? the mess up the sweater table so that I have something (anything) to do for a few minutes. The buy-buy-buy mentality that we push onto the rich and the poor alike feels not unlike taking advantage. Selling never doesn?t feel fake, disingenuous, and manipulative. I contemplate quitting sometimes for the sheer incongruity of the field with my own personal values and integrity.
What gets me through each shift is the simple fact that these jobs are not forever jobs, they are tools to get me to a better place. Because they are just a bridge between my current situation and career, working towards other goals is equally important to them. They do not come before meetings for professional development opportunities, writing time, educational endeavors, or networking.
I coordinate my freelancing/professional obligations around my work schedule, but like cranberry sauce and mac and cheese at Thanksgiving, there is a healthy separation between the two. If my jobs try to claim up the time reserved for my professional life, I assert that I already have obligations penciled in and have no wiggle room on that. By attaching value to my personal time, my managers seem to respect these boundaries for the most part.
Part time job means I have part time availability. In the past, I ate up every hour they would toss like a bone in my direction. Now that I have work life balance, calls begging for coverage go something like this: One of my coworkers called off? I?m sorry, but I can?t come in ? I have other plans already in place, you?ll have to find someone else to cover. No wheedling or heeding a sob story about how hard it is to find someone else. The conversation is over and I am not coming in.
When they try to shift my schedule, I stand firm. For the store, it might be convenient for me to come in early for my next shift for the store, but not for me, so hard pass. I arrive no earlier than my scheduled time. Setting these boundaries early on creates an understanding that my time is important. This job is part time all the time; I will not take on 39.75 hours when it?s convenient for the needs of the store while settling for 10 hours when it?s not convenient for my budget. This is a two way street.
When one can?t pride herself in a bank account, pride lies in hard work. This used to lead me to working my tail off every shift, giving it my all, exhausting my body and mind for less than $8 an hour. At this point, I will not over-exert myself to go above and beyond that. I adhere to standards for production as an understanding that it is in my job description and therefore accepted at my pay grade.
If I am supposed to get 8 hours worth of work done in 6 hours, you can bet that there will be work left over for my next shift. This is not me being salty or lacking a work ethic, it?s just that the standards set by corporate are already unrealistic and I will not burn myself out just to save them payroll and skimp my paycheck. I expect to be compensated as fairly as I can for the work I do. Cramming to get more than is reasonable accomplished is not, in my eyes, fair.
I honor my feelings at my jobs. Often times we are told to check out feelings at the door in the service industry. But if my boss, my coworker, corporate, a customer, anyone, is behaving in a way that makes me feel upset, uncomfortable, or disrespected, I do not lie down and take it. Often times, in customer service, workers are encouraged to be a doormat; phrases like ?the customer is always right? steal away an associate?s ability to assert themselves as human beings. No one is always right, let alone customers.
The idea that barking loud enough will make a manager bend and dole out steep discounts, is damaging. But it is all too often reinforced by managers throwing sales associates under the bus and assuring angry customers that they are entitled to a discount and that this injustice, this mistreatment of someone telling them ?no? is worth throwing a tantrum over and threatening to call corporate in hopes of getting them fired. I know not all managers are like this, and I don?t mean to generalize, but my personal experience and that of many a coworker over the years has indicated that this is the rule rather than the exception.
What this all boils down to is this: I may be selling overpriced clothes created in ethically questionable environments for a living right now, but I am not selling my soul, my humanity, my internal sense of self-worth. Those are priceless. And if corporate can?t stand to pay me more than just above minimum wage, it?s safe to say corporate can?t pay the price of these things, either. For now, a modest paycheck is better than no paycheck. But as soon as a better opportunity arises, I will, as any warm body who has known the hell that is retail firsthand would, grab it. I have faith that they can replace me with some other sad sap desperate for cash. Or a monkey. Or a robot. Probably whatever is cheapest and least likely to talk back.