‘My life in retail’

Former MSNNBC commentator Joseph Williams had the good life going right up until the moment when he discussed race in the Obama-Romney campaign and was booted out of his job two weeks later. Then the Internet found a five-month plea deal for domestic assault. He was toast in the news business.

So he took a job at a sporting goods store.

“In a matter of months, I was broke, depressed, and living on food stamps. I had lost my apartment, and ended up living out of a suitcase in a guest bedroom of an extraordinarily generous family I barely knew. My cash flow consisted of coins from my piggybank and modest sums earned from odd jobs: freelance copy-editing, public relations, coordinating funerals, mowing lawns,” he writes this week on The Atlantic website.

Then he got a good lesson that more people of the upper crust should get: What it’s like to take the only job you can find, and what it’s like to work a retail job in America:

Irritated by my tardiness, Stretch lectured me on time management, including an Orwellian principle found in retail: If you arrive on time for work, you’re already 10 minutes late. Showing up early is necessary, he said, so you can “get ready to hit the floor.”

In that instant, I thought of my college football days, in full gear, psyching myself up for a game by blasting rap music into my headphones. Somehow, the metaphor didn’t translate to selling Nikes and yoga pants to suburbanites.

I later realized Stretch was invoking the principle of “wage theft”—retailers expect employees to be in position ahead of time, making their life easier, even if the employees aren’t getting paid for coming in early. There’s even a website devoted to fighting the practice.

When Williams quit to take a job as a communications director for a Capitol Hill non-profit, the store manager said, “I guess you don’t care about hard work and loyalty.”

My Life as a Retail Worker: Nasty, Brutish, and Cheap – Joseph Williams – The Atlantic.

  • I worked retail all through college (30+ hours a week) barely making minimum wage. it was thankless and, at least in my experiences, the “managers” were wholly incompetent. That experience is the reason I treat retail workers as I would like to be treated, with respect and understanding.

    /I also tip restaurant workers pretty well as I KNOW I could never be a server…
    //Perhaps everyone should have to work in the service/retail industry sometime in their life. It might open their eyes a bit.

  • James C

    The article was interesting to read on a couple of levels. I think one can easily forget what that life is like, much as the author did, when you been removed from that life for so many years, to experience it again is eye-opening. It helps to put ones self into the shoes of others, many of the people we will interact with over the next week will be in these shoes.

  • tboom

    Retail was a mid-career life-raft for me, my experiences were different but it was definitely hard work for pay that couldn’t put food on the table.

    Frankly when hard work won’t provide a place to live and food to eat, the economy isn’t working. Seems our current versions of capitalism and democracy need a re-boot. Minimum wage is a good start, but it seems work rules and how we define eligibility for benefits is also important. As consumers we need to understand what the “lowest price” really costs us.

  • MikeB

    Here’s hoping moe people see and understand how pervasive this is, sliding employees into MINO positions just to avoid paying overtime, cutting back on breaks, requiring work to be done off the clock, and paying low wages while claiming the mantle of job creators.

  • Jim G

    Wage theft is very common in retail employment. My very first job was popping popcorn at Target. I started work at 11:00 however, my manager instructed me to go to the stockroom at 10:30 for supplies, restock the popcorn stand, and then punch in at 11:00. I ignored these instructions. At my first review, he wrote that I had ignored his direction. I remember telling him, “If you want the supplies at the stand by 11:00, then schedule me for 10:30, otherwise you’re stealing thirty minutes of my time. I never heard about this issue again.