Retail workers are leading a mass exodus from the workforce driven by low wages, paltry benefits, and overall shitty work conditions.
According to the Washington Post, some 649,000 retail workers left their jobs in April, making retail the sector to see the biggest losses.
Popular conservative narratives about so-called worker shortages in the wake of the pandemic have framed the issue around Americans’ supposed unwillingness to work after receiving unemployment insurance or stimulus checks. (Or both.) But retail workers tell the Post that they left their jobs—which they stuck out for the last year-plus of the pandemic—for reasons like “longer hours, understaffed stores, unruly customers and even pay cuts.”
And of course they’re still working—they just found jobs that treat them better. The Post reports:
Some are finding less stressful positions at insurance agencies, marijuana dispensaries, banks and local governments, where their customer service skills are rewarded with higher wages and better benefits. Others are going back to school to learn new trades, or waiting until they are able to secure reliable child care.
The pandemic was a time when many people reevaluated their careers and thought about their relationship to work more broadly. Some of these small epiphanies were not entirely new: Even before covid many of us had begun to question the idea that we should devote ourselves entirely to work and seek to find meaning in our lives through it. But it wasn’t until recently that more people were able to act on those awakenings. As the pandemic has begun to recede, Americans looking to eat, drink, shop, and generally revel are overwhelming understaffed businesses, which has increased the demand for workers. This simple dynamic means workers have more power than ever to decide where they work, and under what conditions.
It’s more than understandable that retail workers in particular would want to seize that power. During the peak of the pandemic they were considered “essential workers,” yet their employers continued to treat them as disposable.
“To be getting paid $10 an hour in the middle of a nationwide crisis, it just left a sour taste,” Chris Overland, a 25-year-old who went from selling electronics at a chain store to working in construction, told the outlet. “Now I’m doing more physical labor, but it’s better pay and I’m having a lot more fun without the stresses of retail. It feels better, mentally.”
As with any industry struggling to figure out how to attract new employees, the solution to the retail sector’s problem isn’t especially mysterious: It simply requires paying people a living wage.