The second-largest source of jobs for black people in the country is also one of the worst industries to work in. Although big retailers tout their “entry level” positions as a path to the middle class, retail work is built on dead-end jobs that perpetuate racial inequality.
A new report by the think tank Demos and the NAACP shows that the retail industry, a leading source of employment in the post-recession “recovery,” is creating many more bad jobs than good ones—and blacks and Latinos are stuck in the lowest-paid positions with the least opportunity for advancement.
Some leading retailers have faced legal challenges in recent years over racial or gender discrimination against workers, but the most harmful forms of racial bias operate just below the surface. Bad retail jobs compound the deeper economic and social barriers that disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos. Though black workers don’t differ greatly from whites in terms of education level or the age of the workforce, Demos reports, “Black and Latino retail workers are more likely to be working poor, with 17 percent of Black and 13 percent of Latino retail workers living below the poverty line, compared to 9 percent of the retail workforce overall.”
One reason why these workers tend to be poorer is simply the nature of their jobs: “Black and Latino retail workers are underrepresented in supervisory positions like managers or first-line supervisors. Black workers make up 11 percent of the retail labor force but just 6 percent of managers.” But even in comparable sales positions, Demos researchers found that among full-time salespersons, black and Latino workers earned about 75 cents on the dollar compared to their white counterparts, “amounting to losses up to $7,500 per year.”
Moreover, blacks and Latinos are more likely to be stuck in part-time positions, working fewer than the number of hours they need to make ends meet, with constantly varying schedules. “One in five Black retail workers are employed involuntarily part time, compared to less than one in seven white workers.” The combination of low wages and unstable schedules is particularly hard on parents of color: black and Latino workers are disproportionately likely to be the sole providers for their households. Single moms in retail are especially disadvantaged: according to a 2014 Demos report, “1.3 million women working in the retail industry live in or near poverty.”