“Check to check, constant struggle to make the payments,
Working your whole life wondering where the day went,
The subway stays packed like a multi-cultural slave ship,
It’s rush hour, 2:30 to 8, non-stoppin,’
And people coming home after corporate share croppin’”
–Immortal Technique in “Harlem Streets”
For the entire month of August, I worked a minimum wage job at a Staples, Inc. superstore in Brooklyn, NY. The supplies superstore was located about ten minutes biking distance from my family’s home and I once worked here in the summer of 2014 with the Summer Youth Employment Program. The managers already knew what I was capable of and upon returning for my first day at the store again, I noticed familiar faces.
Some of them greeted me warmly, namely the employees with whom I once held conversations two years ago. I immediately felt comfortable and looked forward to spending the rest of my summer here. Transitioning from conducting research with Professor Del Moral at Amherst and working on my senior honors thesis to working at Staples did not appear to be as difficult as I thought it would be.
Now that I no longer work there and am completing my last college semester, there are two very important realities that I believe are often forgotten. First, people from all walks of life work in retail stores, and it does not matter their socioeconomic status, race, ethnicity, religion, political beliefs. I can almost guarantee that at the very least, most people have three to four friends who have worked retail jobs at some point in their lives. In 2013, retail jobs “employed 1 in 10 New Yorkers and 1 in 9 people nationally;” holding down a retail job is a circumstance familiar to many people living in the United States.
However, I make this point to underscore the stigma that often surrounds working retail by people who think they are too good or qualified to work these high-stress jobs.
The fact is that 95% of the skills acquired from these jobs are usually, and easily, transferrable to other more high-paying jobs. Second, people who work retail are not low-lives or lazy, government welfare recipients living in bad, high-crime neighborhoods. All of this is not to say that I am blind to the uglier truths of working retail, especially in such a hectic, high-stress city like New York. According to a staff writer at CBS Moneywatch who penned an article on the lives of Juicy Couture employees in New York City:
Retail jobs typically do not offer a living wage, let alone a leg up into the middle-class. Rather, with even full-time workers struggling financially, they are far more often a pathway to poverty.
With part-time workers in many retail stores earning as little as $8.50/hour and full-time workers capped at almost $15, the retail industry is not always conducive to long-term financial stability and success. Imagine being the sole breadwinner for a family of three or four on a minimum wage, part-time workers’ yearly salary and struggling to put food in the refrigerator – unfortunately, this is a reality for many people living in this country today who depend on receiving long hours from their managers.
Although this was not my reality, the workload at Staples was arguably the most demanding out of all my years of professional experiences. Cashier lines would regularly extend far into the middle of the sales floor, items that customers decided not to buy last-minute were haphazardly strewn about the aisles and candy shelves, and children gearing up for back to school sales would sometimes throw tantrums if parents said no to purchasing their favorite school supplies.
My hours fluctuated from week to week, I worked long nights and my breaks were capped at fifteen to forty-five minutes. But I also understood why my managers appreciated when I worked a half hour or extra hour beyond my scheduled hours. There was inventory to organize and the higher-ups operating out of corporate Staples headquarters in Framingham, MA were reminding my managers of the sales numbers we all had to reach by a certain date.
More importantly, the store was located in a predominantly Jewish Orthodox community with pockets of Muslim and South American groups, so that I immediately noticed different patterns in the purchasing power of each group. Processing both store and manufacturer coupons was required more so for one group than for another. My ability to speak Spanish fluently with customers who did not speak English demonstrated the extent to which they depended on sales associates like me, who could personally relate to their economic, political and social struggles, to have a positive shopping experience at Staples.
The four weeks that I worked at a retail store surely reminded me of the vast disparities in wealth, education and cultural capital in the United States. Brooklyn, however, is only a microcosm of these social issues.
The retail industry ultimately relies on the needs (and wants) of American shoppers who may not fully comprehend the internal mechanisms of employee-employer relationships in a Staples supply store. In this consumerist, capitalist society, the accepted norm is to walk into a retail store, buy what you need, maybe use a coupon or two if you have them on your person, and walk right out.
But underlying the sales transactions and sometimes cordial greetings between customer and sales associate are the unheard experiences of retail workers who are culturally and socially marginalized when all they need and ask for is a decent job to make ends meet. No one deserves to be spoken down to because of their present situation in life. Retail workers are of different races, ethnicities, educational levels, socioeconomic statuses, political and religious beliefs, and they do not fit into one perfect mold.
As much as I questioned the repetitiveness of my responsibilities and even the music blaring from the store’s speakers, I know what it is like to work as an associate at Staples store and why it is important that I know this reality. I am also proud of it. It is an experience that helps me to apply for any organization that serves a particular client base or provides any kind of social service to a community.
It is an experience that has allowed me to continue relating to others on a human level, beyond the ivory tower (and the unshakeable identity that comes with it) I have unfortunately been subjected to for four years. Customer service skills? No problem. In an interview for a job, I am more willing to speak confidently about my work-study experiences on campus, as well as my Staples jobs, than any other traditional internship I’ve completed.
Not everyone has the patience to help an angry customer, understand supply and demand patterns or can explain why the best place to witness power dynamics in action is in a U.S. retail store. Work experiences speak to character.
Every experience, whether at a McDonalds restaurant, an Office Max supply store, or in Amherst College’s very own Valentine Dining Hall, is incredibly valuable and absolutely no one deserves to be mislabeled as disposable for working a service job. Similarly, we should consider how we treat employees of the College, particularly those who work to maintain this institution in working shape, as well as provide us with the food and shelter we need to thrive.
The hierarchy of labor here, with working in Val or other service-oriented jobs at the bottom and TA’ing, working in the admissions office or library at the top, can sometimes make students forget that they are more than their academic accolades and can relate to those who may not have been given the same work or educational opportunities. Look around this collegiate environment and be critical of the power relations that you see in labor. These relations often speak more to how institutions operate than any other issue.