During the first year of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some 305,000 garment workers lost jobs, while cashiers and many other retail store workers struggled with wages below $ 15 an hour, and the federal minimum wage remained stagnant for its 11th year in a row.
As the retail industry adapts to the growing pandemic demands for online ordering features, home deliveries and street pickup services, cities can set agendas to address trends that hurt low-paid retailers and communities, argues a new report from the National League of Cities, an organization of local officials.
About 64 percent of retail workers do not earn a living wage for a family of four, and the median salary for a cashier last year was $ 12.04 an hour, according to the NLC report. While the federal minimum wage has been stagnant at $ 7.25 an hour since 2009, despite a labor-driven push over the past decade to raise those wages to at least $ 15 an hour, many cities and states have also failed to implement changes. In fact, about 25 states have blocked cities and other local jurisdictions from raising wages above the state or federal minimum, according to the report.
“Raising the minimum wage is the first step in narrowing the rather large gap between the value that retail workers provide to society and, unfortunately, the low wages they receive in return,” said Tina Lee, senior research specialist at NLC’s Center for City Solutions at a press conference Thursday on the report.
While big-boxes and large retailers reported record profits during the pandemic, they have also had greater public control over working methods, as workers and lawyers claim they have exposed workers to precarious working conditions without extra pay to compensate them for the risks.
Attempts to shift this narrative have retailers including Amazon, Target and Walmart introducing increases or otherwise signaling their embrace of a minimum wage of $ 15 an hour or perks like signatures and other bonuses. Amazon’s starting minimum wage was set at $ 15 an hour two years before the pandemic, while Target introduced a minimum wage of $ 15 last year. Although Walmart has implemented salaries for some groups of workers over the past year, it still pays as low as $ 11 an hour to workers in a variety of roles in parts of the country.
“I expect to see convergence – we have already seen several retailers adopt a long-term plan [for] Minimum periods of $ 15 per. Time, ”said Michael Mandel, chief economist at the Progressive Policy Institute, at Thursday’s press conference. “I think we are going through a period where workers will be less willing to accept such low wages.”
Mandel referred to a recent Washington Post report highlighting the departure of retail workers – approx. 649,000 workers quit in April – arguing that the shift bodes well for the labor market.
“I think this is good news – people have decided that they do not want to work with low-wage jobs… and they think the job opportunities are good enough to move,” he said.
“And in the economy room, you see completion rates as a positive – ‘finish’ means people are optimistic and think they can do better.”
As the retail industry renegotiates its relationship with workers and customers, cities and local officials should shepherd that reinvention by addressing wages and the use of public spaces in ways that prioritize community needs, NCL leaders added.
“Just as the retail industry faced disruption after the Great Recession, COVID-19 has been another major disruption that accelerated the adoption of curbside pickup, underscores the need for key employees and strengthens demand for experience-based retail and discount stores.” said Brooks Rainwater, director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions.