As California begins “Phase 2” of reopening, workers are the ones who will pay.
Gavin Newsom, California’s perfectly-coiffed, modelesque governor, has announced the state’s intention to gradually “reopen” our economy.
Flower shops, book stores, clothing stores, they’re all expected to open for business while this pandemic rages on. It is, to put it lightly, a not so great time to do this.
Newsom said the West Coast is “guided by science,” though I’m not sure what “science” he’s looking at. Here’s a graph of COVID-19 cases in California (so far) that is available for free on Google:
As I sit in my room, writing this, I’m anxiously awaiting a call to return to work. This past Tuesday marks the record high for cases in California.
Although my former employer terminated all of its retail employees — all of them, from coast to coast — it “hopes” that all associates will return to former positions as soon as the company is able to reopen. This hope, of course, is not in writing.
Like many retail workers around the city, without a union to help fight for collective rights, I’m left wondering if I’ll actually get my job back. Will I have the same pay rate, the same benefits, the same healthcare?
I’m a retail worker. I’ve been in luxury retail for six years in two different countries. I specify “luxury” because I want to be clear about my own privilege: I don’t work in grocery, or a big-box store, and I have been considered a non-essential worker for the past two months.
I’ve been able to stay home, protecting myself and my neighbors. My sister works at one of the top grocery chains in the nation, so I’ve seen how poorly the “essential” businesses are handling this crisis.
It took weeks to get appropriate personal protection equipment (PPE) at most grocery and retail stores. It took weeks to get legislation passed that ensures free testing and paid time off for workers infected with COVID-19. Many businesses are not enforcing these laws, leaving workers unprotected against the virus, scared for their health.
It has been a frustrating two months as a non-essential retail worker. Applying for unemployment is needlessly tedious — the state wants 18 months of work history and contact information for all former employers. It took me weeks to track down the elusive EDD debit card that the state issued me. Coupled with reorienting my monthly budget (unemployment is disturbingly insubstantial), I’ve been experiencing existential dread, in between binged episodes of Keeping Up With Kardashians (we’ll get to that petri dish of pop culture in a separate post).
I have to stay home because my grandmother, who I’m very close with, is on a ventilator. I have to stay home because I experienced a spontaneous pneumothorax when I was 18, leaving me with compromised lung capacity. I have to stay home because I don’t want to see unnecessary death from a virus we barely understand and still have no vaccine to inoculate against.
If I had the choice to go back to work prematurely or wait it out until we sufficiently flatten the curve and develop a plan to mitigate waves of mass deaths, I would choose the latter. But no one has asked me, or any other worker.
Since the Los Angeles Times was bought by a billionaire in 2018, I stopped expecting much of a bite from their reporting, let alone their business analysis. Still, I find myself shocked by what makes it to print.
This past Tuesday — the very same day that reported cases spiked — they ran an article exploring what businesses will look like in Los Angeles under a slightly loosened Stay-At-Home order.
The piece is a quick read, splitting into specific sectors of business and what the public can expect from each industry. Five whole journalists tackled this article, and not one of these writers talked to someone who will actually deal with these changes: you know, retail workers.
In the city of Los Angeles, there are more than 147,000 retail workers. It wouldn’t be hard to get a moment of our time, considering many of us were terminated or “furloughed indefinitely” when our stores closed in March.
The retail section opens with the claim that social distancing models in place at grocery stores “has worked” so far. Had these journalists talked to workers on the ground, they would know that’s simply not the reality in Los Angeles.
Twenty-one employees tested positive last week at a Ralph’s in Hollywood. That’s the highest number of reported cases in any California grocery store. Pavilions provided two masks to employees in April. They haven’t replaced them since.
Like many people, I’ve been to grocery stores in the last six weeks. And I’ve seen customers without masks, guests not practicing social distancing, and no enforcement of the laws meant to protect workers. I wouldn’t say that any of this “has worked” for anyone but the CEOs of these supermarket chains, who of course, are making record profits.
The “experts” quoted in the retail section include AT Kearney, a Chicago-based global management consulting firm with $1.3 billion dollars in revenue. According to the article, AT Kearney specializes in “retail business,” and its expert warns that stores should open up initially with “limited staffing.”
This shouldn’t be hard, as many workers I know have actually left Los Angeles entirely. They’ve moved back in with family in other cities and states, because they can’t afford the absurd cost of rent on what little money comes from unemployment.
The article outlines ways that Macy’s is expected to change its shopping experience, including a “24-hour cool down period” for any clothing that has been tried on or returned. If you’ve worked in a department store like Macy’s (which I did, as a vendor for Michael Kors), you know how ridiculous this suggestion sounds.
Clothing that has been tried on either goes directly back onto the rack (with deodorant or makeup marks all over it) or it gets left in a changing room. Both of these scenarios present countless problems for shoppers and for workers, who will now be in charge of policing the behavior of the public.
Are Macy’s employees expected to stop guests from touching the thousands of units on display, all throughout the store? Are Macy’s employees, who make minimum wage, expected to confront shoppers who aren’t wearing masks or practicing social distancing? In my experience, Macy’s has always been a dangerous and hostile place to work. I can’t imagine what my former colleagues will have to endure, from both management and shoppers, when their doors open up.
The article touches on brands that don’t operate as department stores, and instead have standalone boutiques around the city. These stores could simply do what we already do: offer less variety on the shop floor and provide individual customer experiences. This isn’t an innovation.
Many boutiques don’t present a full-size run of clothing on a shop floor, typically displaying smaller sizes and keeping everything else in “the back.” If someone tries on an item, it goes back out onto the shop floor. Unless companies come up with enough cash to provide a fluff-and-fold system to service every store, I’m not sure how we can sanitize items as the article suggests.
In boutique settings, it’s difficult to practice social distancing, as the stores are smaller and there’s less staff on hand. If companies follow the expert advice of firms like AT Kearney and cut staff, we won’t be able to provide the experience necessary to turn a small profit. Their advice is contradictory.
Smaller retailers and boutiques already operate on a razor-thin margin and don’t have the dedicated cleaning staff that department stores and big-box retailers have.
We do all of the cleaning: dusting, sweeping, mopping. If we have a bathroom on-site, which is rare, we clean that ourselves, too. We take the trash to the dumpsters and the recycling to the appropriate bins. We are asked to throw away used coffee cups, dirty diapers, and even people’s soiled clothing (this happens in tourist-heavy cities, like Los Angeles). Are we still expected to do all this when we reopen?
Part of why I’ve enjoyed working in retail is because I’m lucky enough to actually make a career out of it. I have worked in London and LA, traveled all over the United State for work, and have built a very beautiful wardrobe throughout these years. I have made friends with many guests in my time, precisely because luxury retail is such a holistic business. I have watched guests battle cancer, suffer the loss of a child, celebrate weddings and graduations all the same. I’ve held suitcases, cuddled babies, and embraced guests leaving for the summer. The human aspect of retail is what makes the job so special and worth doing.
Businesses have an obligation not just to the public, but to staff, to be conscious of health and safety. Our health is the public’s health. All workers deserve more money and free healthcare during this time, regardless of how much they work.
A business article that doesn’t examine how profits are made is meaningless.
My CEO is not going to go into a store and ring up clothing if one of my staff members gets sick with COVID-19. Why is their desire to make money more important than our health? Why does a consulting firm get to decide how stores will look during a pandemic, when their partners aren’t the ones working with customers?
Why do investors get to decide what this world looks like?
Why doesn’t anyone ask workers what they want?