Worst Jobs in America: New York's Retail Worker Woes

Joanna Douglas, Shine Fashion and Beauty Editor
Retail workers are often underpaid and overworked.
Retail workers are often underpaid and overworked.

When it comes to white-collar jobs, many young professionals will gripe about their past or current retail positions. Sure there are worse things in the world than folding t-shirts and ringing a register, but difficult customers, grueling hours, and minimal pay, are enough to send you home crying at the end of the day.

A recent study in New York City funded by Retail Action Project surveyed 436 nonunion retail employees and found the median salary to be $9.50 an hour. This includes workers from clothing stores, department stores, book stores, electronic stores and other retail outlets in every demographic from high-end shops on Fifth Avenue to discount stores on Fordham Road in the Bronx.

The New York Times reported that in addition to receiving poverty level pay rates, only 30% receive health insurance and 20% have a set schedule every week. 20% of those surveyed also had to be available for call-in shifts. This can be tricky for those balancing school classes, second jobs, and child care, especially when you don't know your weekly schedule more than a few days in advance.

And while some may complain about their jobs and wages, many workers are just hoping to pick up more hours. "An extremely high number earn low wages that cannot even bring them to the federal poverty line," said Stephanie Luce, a professor of labor relations at the Murphy Institute who worked on the study. "The problem of low wages is exacerbated by low work hours. If large chains, with stores in the retail mecca of Manhattan, can't create living-wage careers in this industry, we should be pretty pessimistic about the opportunities for millions of retail workers around the country."

The study also found many instances of wage violation. Around 16% of workers said they have worked off the clock on many occasions, over 33% have worked more than 10 hours a day, and many of them were never paid overtime as state law mandates.

We reached out to several retail employees about their work conditions, but most of them would not speak candidly for fear of losing their jobs or because they've signed non-disclosure agreements. We did speak with Nicole [last name redacted], who worked as women's department manager at an Urban Outfitters store in New York City for nine months. She describes it as the worst job she's ever had. "I thought it would be a great opportunity and heard the pay was amazing," Nicole told us exclusively. "I wanted to work for corporate doing merchandising and display and thought working in women's would get my foot in the door." Such was not the case.

"I would go in at 3 p.m. and sometimes not get out of work until 2 or 3 a.m. Since I was a manager I couldn't really complain to anyone-it was just expected of me. Everyone talked about each other [behind each others' backs]. I tried to change stores and they wouldn't let me. When I expressed I'd like to do merchandising and display they pretty much told me that was never going to happen. Once you were in a department, you were locked in there for life. But the worst part of the job is customers. They treat you horribly [and] can make or break your entire day. Between the ridiculous hours and abuse from customers, the paycheck was never enough."

Nicole has worked for other mass retail chains as well as small boutiques, and though she's had many bad experiences she thinks some retail jobs are better than others. "Boutique jobs over corporate any day," says Nicole. "Small business owners are the best to work for. The environment is better and usually all the customers that shop there are local neighborhood people and they treat you like a person, not a servant. The hours are always better too." While for many a job is just a way to make a paycheck, you must be happy with your surroundings to survive. "If you like where you're working and the people you work with, that makes a huge difference," says Nicole.

Have you ever had a bad experience working retail? Please share your gripes below.

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