“Hey I’m not complaining ’cause I really need the work
“Hitting up my buddy’s got me feeling like a jerk
“Hundred dollar car note, two hundred rent.
“I get a check on Friday, but it’s already spent.”
Those who enjoy what they do — whose careers are as much passion as paycheck — are fortunate souls. Millions of Americans aren’t so blessed. And today’s media-fueled “Black Friday” faux holiday shines a harsh spotlight on the plight of those who toil in service-industry jobs and receive little more than minimum wages, if that.
They are cashiers, stockboys, waiters and waitresses, fast-food burger-flippers, shoe salesmen and WalMart greeters. Today, many of them will work lengthy shifts on the busiest shopping day of the year, getting little thanks or pay in return.
Calhoun County knows them well. In many ways, they are who we are. We are a microcosm of Alabama job-creation, a false economic panacea in which politicians praise improved unemployment figures and newly created jobs. What’s conveniently ignored is that too many of our jobs are service-industry positions offering part-time hours, minimum wages and few, if any, benefits.
Through economic calamity and the changing American family, these service-industry jobs still exist as bottom-feeder spots that keep companies profitable. They were designed for college kids and adults needing part-time work; now, however, they’re filled by adults needing full-time work to pay, as Lewis sang, the car note or the rent.
It’s better than being jobless, but barely.
This year, a Marxist-like revolt bubbled up among fast-food workers appealing to the government to raise the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour. Walkouts took place this summer. In Washington, D.C., officials there passed a living-wage bill that’s trying to make WalMart pay its employees $12.50 an hour. But little has changed.
In August, The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki examined the genesis of this plague on American employment. What he found was startling.
“As a recent study by the economists John Schmitt and Janelle Jones has shown, low-wage workers are older and better educated than ever. More important, more of them are relying on their paychecks not for pin money or to pay for Friday-night dates but, rather, to support families. Forty years ago, there was no expectation that fast-food or discount-retail jobs would provide a living wage, because these were not jobs that, in the main, adult heads of household did. Today, low-wage workers provide 46 percent of their family’s income. It is that change which is driving the demand for higher pay,” he wrote.
Call it the perfect storm. The Great Recession tore apart the job market. Finding work was virtually impossible. Companies shed employees like dogs getting rid of fleas. Service and retail industries, when they resumed hiring, found an unimaginable glut of workers — often college-educated, white-collar workers — seeking paychecks, any paycheck. Companies such as WalMart, McDonald’s and any number of retailers are profitable today in part because of overqualified workers willing to run a cash register for less than $10 an hour.
To be fair, not all retailers pay poverty wages. Earlier this year, BusinessInsider.com and GlassDoor.com published a survey of the top jobs in fashion retail. A few of the retailers have stores in Alabama, if not here in Calhoun County.
The top five: Bloomingdale’s ($12.36 average hourly salary for sales associates), Nordstrom ($11.89), Neiman Marcus ($11.60), Talbots ($11.18) and Dillard’s ($10.57). But those were the outliers, the exceptions. Too many retailers resembled those at the bottom of the BusinessInsider.com survey, Pacific Sunware ($7.62 average hourly salary for sales associates) and Abercrombie and Fitch ($7.69).
The solution is complicated and wrapped in politics. President Obama has correctly called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage; adjusted for inflation, today’s minimum wage remains below 1968’s peak, according to The New Yorker. But Republicans and their business allies are hardly fond of the idea, and big-box retailers say any increase in wages will be passed on to consumers, who may seek lower prices elsewhere.
Caught in the middle are the cashiers and associates who have few supporters and a meager voice at the Statehouse or on Capitol Hill. Their only strength is their numbers.
Take my advice and smile at these workers when they ring you up this Black Friday weekend. There’s a good chance your cashier is barely surviving, check to check.
Phillip Tutor — email@example.com — is The Star’s commentary editor. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.