Crappy Holidays: Retail work in Oklahoma

473b59c0-002fd-0344d-400cb8e1Early January is a busy time of year for retail stores.  Shoppers flock to malls and shopping centers to take advantage of storewide after-holiday sales, spend their gift cards, and return or exchange items.  While many consumers find the holiday shopping environment stressful, the stress of the season is likely to fall heavier on retail employees dealing with sharp increases in workload, but not necessarily increased compensation.  Inadequate pay and benefits means Oklahomans working retail are on precarious financial footing, and are likely to stay that way regardless of how hard or how much they work.

Every year in early Fall, retailers typically hire additional workers to handle the seasonal sales boost.   If sales fall short of retailer’s expectations, those hours are cut back and many employees work vastly fewer hours than they expected or were promised.  Since seasonal labor costs are the easiest cost to cut, part-time workers are especially vulnerable during the holiday season.


It’s increasingly inaccurate, however, to conceive of the retail workforce as mostly part-time or seasonal.  Nearly 50,000 Oklahomans work year-round to unlock your dressing rooms, bag your groceries, and count out your change.  Retail is expected to add another 18,000 jobs to the state’s economy by 2020.   

It’s another pervasive myth that these jobs only go to teens or ‘spending-money’ moms (hypothetically working for disposable cash, not necessary income).  In reality, more than one in two (54 percent) retail workers nationally are contributing at least half of their family’s income, and nearly one in five (18 percent) are their family’s sole-earner.  And retail in Oklahoma is very low-wage work.  As you can see in the chart to the left, a full-time retail sales worker earns $14,190 less throughout the year than the average Oklahoma worker. 

The pay and benefits provided by most retail jobs are falling short of workers’ basic needs, even excluding part-time workers who are less likely to be a family’s sole income-earner.  The chart below compares full-time and salaried retail employee benefits in Oklahoma with the benefits of all full-time and salaried employees in the state:


A majority of Oklahomans who work full-time in retail sales are not offered paid sick days or overtime pay.  That’s an untenable situation for mothers and fathers of school-aged children, who are not only prone to get sick but require expensive child care if they have to stay home from school.  Nearly half (44 percent) of workers aren’t offered a retirement plan, a critical component of long-term financial security for all workers.  

One in five retail employees aren’t offered a health plan.  We know that an even larger share are offered a health plan, but can’t afford the premiums because their wages are too low.  A good friend of mine works two jobs at the mall, one at a make-up counter and one at a shoe store, and neither job currently offers her health insurance.  She worked sixty hours a week during the holiday season to support her husband while he completes a college degree.  She’s on the lookout for another job, one that offers health coverage to help pay for treatment for her rheumatoid arthritis, but hasn’t found one yet.

Tens of thousands of full-time Oklahoma workers are in this position, earning $24,000 a year on average with scant benefits.  In fact, this is precisely the population that health reform’s Medicaid expansion was intended to cover.  But Oklahoma’s elected leaders have decided to turn down federal money to extend Medicaid insurance coverage to many of these low-income adults.  This leaves a large and growing segment of the workforce, who worked long and busy days during the season to ensure that everyone had gifts to put under the tree, without health care and out of luck.


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