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Survey Of 1,000+ Retail Workers Reveals Many Struggling To Move Up The Career Ladder At America’s Biggest Brands

After a wave of store closings in 2017, report shows how to promote economic security for the retail workforce


NEW YORK — A new Fair Workweek Initiative survey of more than 1,000 people working for America’s biggest retail brands shows that many working in the industry struggle to achieve economic security. The survey offers new insight into the experience of working in retail as the industry undergoes a period of upheaval and employers like Walmart make new investments in training and higher wages.

“Retail is one of the biggest jobs engines in America, and this survey shows we have a lot more work to do to make those jobs the kind that can truly support working families,” said Carrie Gleason, Director of the Fair Workweek Initiative at the Center for Popular Democracy. “Working people are speaking up, and if we want solutions that work, we need to start listening. Together, we can ensure retail emerges from its current troubles as an industry that provides real economic opportunity for working Americans.”

This is the first national survey of the retail workforce since a wave of store closings began last year. It covers a slew of major employers across the industry, including: Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Macy’s and Walgreens.

The survey finds that training does translate into better job opportunities in the industry – but that poor job quality is undermining the investment into training. More workers see the ability to maintain “open availability” – or the willingness to work any schedule – as a leading factor for a promotion, compared to training, experience, or positive performance reviews. The demand for open availability and to work erratic hours, in turn, impedes many workers from advancing in their jobs by making it nearly impossible to juggle work with other responsibilities. Nearly half of workers surveyed, for example, took care of kids and other family members, and one in five held a second job.

The report also revealed that many working people in retail are relegated to part-time jobs, hurting their earnings and further subjecting them to unpredictable hours. Nearly half of frontline workers surveyed were part-time, incurring both a pay penalty – part-time workers make 68 cents for every dollar earned by their full-time counterparts – and vulnerability to wildly erratic hours.

“When I worked at Walmart, a ‘promotion’ just meant you would be rewarded with more stable hours every week. It didn’t mean you would be paid more or get more responsibility,” said Kingia Phillips, a former Walmart stocker and member of OUR Walmart. “Retail jobs can help people like me, but we need jobs that treat employees with respect and provide us with the skills to create a better life.”

While retail suffered a series of store closings in 2017 – in part, driven by pressures from private equity investors and online retailing – more stores still opened than closed. Retail still employs one in ten workers in America, and retail salesperson is one of the fastest-growing professions in the country. As market dynamics in retail reshape the industry, the survey points to a deep need to stabilize the retail workforce by improving job quality and providing meaningful pathways for career advancement.

The full report can be read here. The survey findings include:

  • Part-Time Work Dominates, Hurting Workers
    • 47% of frontline workers, such as sales associates and cashiers, worked part-time.
    • Part-time workers make 68 cents for every dollar earned by their full-time counterparts.
    • The hours of part-time workers fluctuate wildly, from as few as 16 hours to as many as 29 from week to week.
  • Lack of “Good” Jobs
    • Only 8% of front-line retail workers had a “good job,” paying at least $15 an hour, with full-time hours, health insurance, and paid time off. 
    • 45% of frontline retail workers received at least one type of government benefit in the last 12 months. 45% of frontline retail workers borrowed money and 39% used a credit card to cover basic expenses in the past year.
  • Mobility in Retail is Largely Lateral, Not Upward
    • Wage stagnation: One in three workers surveyed hadn’t received a raise in the last two years. 
    • Full-time employment has become a promotion. Among full-time frontline workers, 61 percent had previously worked part-time positions at their current employers. Only 18% of workers who had changed positions moved up to a managerial role.
  • Training Works – But It Isn’t Enough
    • 81% of retail workers reported receiving some form of cross-training to learn different roles in their workplace.
    • 59% of frontline workers who received training received a better position.
    • Yet workers ranked training as the second most-important factor for promotion. 50% said training helped get a promotion, compared to 51% who cited open availability.  
  • Lack of Advancement Hurts Women, People of Color Hardest
    • Nearly two-thirds of those with high-quality jobs were white.
    • 60% of women felt open availability was necessary to advance in their jobs, compared to 40% of men.
    • About 70% of women reported that the stress of their job took a toll on their health, while nearly the same percentage of men reported no health issues at all.


Media Contact: 

Asya Pikovsky, apikovsky@populardemocracy.org207-522-2442