Sue Reich worked for 27 years at Shopko, a Midwest retailer that sold clothing, shoes, housewares, and electronics, until, one day, her employer didn’t exist anymore. Shopko, which employed 14,000 people across 26 states, filed for bankruptcy last year and closed all its stores last summer after it couldn’t find a buyer.

The same story is happening across the country as the retail apocalypse continues. In 2019, retailers including Payless ShoeSource, Dress Barn, and Barney’s closed 9,200 stores; Payless alone cut 16,000 jobs. Employment in retail in January was down 8% from the same time last year, according to new Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) data, at the same time, jobs in transportation and warehousing, industries critical for e-commerce, were up 28%. Department stores have shed 241,000 employees in the last five years, according to BLS data, and clothing stores cut 67,000 jobs.

But there is no national outcry as workers like Reich lose their jobs without severance pay, no movement to protect the people being thrust out of work, calling for an end to store closures, or to find funding to ensure these workers end up in better jobs. “We hear politicians talk about the loss of factories and manufacturing and mining, but there has not been the same level of outcry around the loss of retail jobs,” says Nicole Mason, the president of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.. “I would conjecture that one of the reasons we’re not talking about it is that it impacts predominantly women.” Nearly 80% of cashiers were women in 2018, according to IWPR data. As online shopping grows, and employment in warehouses grows, retail jobs for women are shrinking, while men’s jobs are growing — an IWPR analysis found that the retail industry lost 54,300 jobs between 2016 and 2017; over that time, women lost 160,300 jobs while men gained 106,000.

In the past, when factories shut down or jobs moved overseas, the government stepped in to protect workers who lost their jobs. The federal Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program assists workers whose jobs have been displaced because of trade; but those funds aren’t available to retail workers. In the 1980s a group of Ohio legislators pushed for the WARN Act, which required employers to give advance notice of mass layoffs and plant closings and to pay back wages if they did not provide that warning. 

It’s no accident that there are government policies protecting workers in industries such as manufacturing. These are industries that have long been unionized, and in the 1980s and 1990s, as the United States negotiated trade deals such as NAFTA, unions worked with elected officials from districts that were in danger of losing factories, says Kate Bronfenbrenner, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They made sure that any trade deal included programs to help workers who would be displaced. To sell the trade deal, Congress had to agree to fund worker retraining and subsidy programs. 

But retail is disappearing not because of a trade deal, but because the way consumers buy things is changing. Tech companies like Amazon didn’t have to negotiate with Congress to be able to sell things online; they could just start doing it. That’s meant that there is no constituency that must make sure retail workers end up on their feet in order to get a bill passed. As more sudden retail layoffs happen, Jack Raisner, a professor of law at St. John’s University, says he sees an opening for states or the federal government to pass more protections for retail workers. He recently helped New Jersey pass a bill that updates the WARN Act to apply to more retail workers, which he hopes will inspire similar bills in other states.  “Putting people out on the street after years of service without anything is a horror and a tax on the public,” says Raisner. He also worked with Senators Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Chuck Schumer of New York to craft the Fair Warning Act of 2019, which would update the WARN Act nationally. The bill was introduced in November. 

Though business owners in New Jersey say that the state’s new law will deter companies from coming to the state, broader protections for retail workers in the form of retraining or re-education programs could be good for the larger economy. As technology changes the nature of work, people who get more education or increase their skills are best positioned to do the types of jobs that computers and robots can’t yet do. This in turn grows the nation’s productivity rate, and its economy. Now, technological change is happening faster than ever before; McKinsey estimates that by 2030, growing automation will mean that as many as 375 million workers (14% of the global workforce) will need to switch occupational categories.

In retail, where the average hourly wage for people who aren’t managers is just $16.86, laid-off workers don’t have the resources to stop working for six months or two years to get a certification or degree in another industry. “For the most part, these workers are living paycheck to paycheck, and the idea of being without a job is scary,” says Anthony Snyder, the chief executive officer of the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board in Northeast Wisconsin, which helps laid-off workers find new jobs. That’s why many retail workers are on what Snyder calls the “retail merry-go-round,” where their employer dissolves or closes down, they find another retail-related job, and then get laid off from it, too.

The United States has systematically disinvested in resources that would help low-wage workers without a big financial cushion go back to school. Federal investments in workforce training have fallen 40% over the past 15 years, when adjusted for inflation, according to the National Skills Coalition, a group that advocates for worker training. This means many federally funded job centers only offer perfunctory classes such as building a resume or using a computer, rather than the type of longer-term interventions that typically help people switch careers, says Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at the National Skills Coalition.

The question now is whether the government will step in to protect retail workers as it did manufacturing workers, even though retail is not unionized. Economists largely agree that retail is about to go through what manufacturing did, says Anthony Carnevale, the director of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce. Manufacturing was once one-third of the workforce; now it’s eight percent. “There’s no question,” he says, “that retail is up next.”

Source: Time