The Breaking Point: US Retail Employees Reeling under Escalated Pressures
By David Love, Quiver Editor
Posted: 2 weeks, 6 days ago // Sept. 8, 2023 4:16 p.m. UTC
In the current landscape of the American retail sector, workers are grappling with amplified stresses and challenges, as tensions have escalated drastically since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Daily interactions at retail establishments have become a focal point of anxiety and tension, symptomatic of broader societal unrest. Employee responsibilities have expanded significantly, encompassing roles as security, janitors, and online order facilitators, with many workers like Henry Demetrius, who once worked at a Walgreens (WBA) in Brooklyn, encountering potential threats and violence in their line of duty. Compounding the pressures are the discontent and orneriness displayed by customers frustrated with higher prices and political polarization, creating a working environment fraught with volatility and unease.
The bleak scenario is corroborated by numerous studies and anecdotal evidence highlighting the burgeoning discontent among retail workers. McKinsey's 2022 study indicates a whopping 70% higher quit rate among retail employees compared to other sectors in the US. The attrition rate has been exacerbated in the post-pandemic period, rising to an alarming 95%. Notwithstanding these challenges, corporate responses seem insufficient. Companies like Walgreens advocate for employee well-being, offering supports like free counseling sessions, but frontline workers like Demetrius still find themselves bearing the brunt of societal frustrations, eventually succumbing to the pressures and leaving their jobs to recuperate mentally and emotionally.
On the global stage, the retail sector witnesses a uniform trend of adapting to shifting customer behaviors and economic fluctuations. Nevertheless, the American retail workforce seems to be at a relative disadvantage, grappling with limited job protection and benefits, thereby having lesser leverage to better their working circumstances. An increasingly hostile retail environment marked by 'guest-on-associate violence' is becoming a norm, with several companies noting significant spikes in shoplifting incidents in recent years. These incidents are not just confined to small disputes but have escalated to severe threats and violence, dragging retail workers unwillingly into the vortex of cultural wars, as seen in incidents reported at Target (TGT).
Amidst this chaotic backdrop, the efforts towards employee training and wellbeing appear fragmented and insufficient. While some retailers have initiated de-escalation training to help employees manage conflicts better, a significant portion of the workforce remains untrained in handling aggressive customers, leaving them vulnerable and discontented. Employees like Artavia Milliam, working at an H&M (HNNMY) outlet in Times Square, witness firsthand the disheartening changes in customer behavior, now even involving distressing incidents in fitting rooms. Although unions have initiated some remedial actions, the scope remains limited given the small percentage of unionized retail workers in the US. As the strain continues to escalate, many employees are reconsidering the worth of their roles, weighing their low wages against the heightened stress and risks involved in their day-to-day tasks.