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Underemployment: Retail Workers Struggle For Hours In Weak Recovery

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WASHINGTON -- A little over two years ago, Floyd Kelly, then an associate at Walmart, transferred from one company store in Washington State to another. Although Kelly had worked full-time for years, he says that after the switch his hours dropped to part-time.

Ever since then, he’s been trying desperately to claw his way back to a 40-hour week.

“I’ve been trying to transfer into other full-time positions for over two years now,” says Kelly, who now works at Sam's Club, which is owned by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. “But everywhere I’ve contacted, they told me all they have is part-time.”

For Kelly and other retail workers like him, the difference between full-time and part-time in this economy is the difference between eking by and slowly going under. In Kelly’s case, the reduced workweek means a paycheck that’s about two-thirds of what it used to be. It means a less reliable schedule, no sick days and no vacation days. And it means keeping roommates at age 50, just so he can cover rent.

“If you give up full-time, you might never get it back,” says Kelly, who's been working at Walmart and Sam's Club for more than seven years. (Despite Kelly's situation, a spokesperson for the company says that a majority of its workers enjoy full-time status.)

Despite a string of mostly dismal jobs reports, the retail sector has managed to add 146,000 jobs over the past year. But many of those jobs don’t come with the hours that workers need in order to get by, nor do they come with the benefits or week-to-week stability of a quality job.

The average workweek in retail was 30.3 hours last month, fewer than the 33.5 hours for the average private-sector job, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Over the past year, those figures have not improved at all for either the retail industry or the private sector as a whole, and they've even managed to drop in recent months -- a fact that doesn’t bode well for workers in need of more work.

"This hours problem is a big one," says Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute. "We’re not seeing employment growth, and we still have all these workers who haven’t had their hours restored. The first thing [employers] will do when they see demand is restore those hours. That means employment growth is even farther off."

Facing stubbornly weak consumer demand, retailers have needed to keep a close watch on the amount of work they're doling out in the down economy. But labor advocates say the skimping on hours and the scheduling fluctuations have put workers in a financial bind and created logistical headaches for them. When this week might offer 35 daytime hours and next week 22 nighttime hours, it can become difficult to arrange for daycare, to set doctor’s appointments, or, for many people, to take that much-needed second part-time job. The shortage of hours also limits workers' mobility, as the employees who do enjoy full-time status are careful to hunker down and keep it.

Carrie Gleason, director of the Retail Action Project, an advocacy group for rank-and-file workers in the industry, says some employees’ desperation has led to a situation in which they bend to the employers’ needs, only to find that the flexibility and good will isn’t reciprocated.

“Managers are getting tighter and tighter budgets, tied closer to labor costs,” Gleason says. “Labor is a cost they can control. If they can use the labor pool more efficiently, it’s a way to improve profitability.”

The result, she says, is employees getting called in on short notice or having their schedules cut back because of last week’s disappointing sales figures. She says that instead of working hard to get a raise or a year-end bonus, many work hard in mere hopes of getting more hours and a more regular schedule.

“Hours are the new bonus,” Gleason says. Many employers “don’t look at the cost of declining quality in customer service, or what the unpredictable scheduling does to a worker’s mentality. It’s really a divestment of the workforce through scheduling.”

One 20-something who works at a Burlington Coat Factory in the New York City area says that since 2008 she's been stuck on a series of fluctuating part-time schedules in retail. Recently, she's been getting 20 hours per week, at around $8 per hour. She asked that her name not be used, since she doesn't want to carp on her employer publicly.

"I've never lived comfortably," the young woman said. "No benefits, no sick days or vacation. Does that stuff even exist? All the time, I'm wondering if I can get ahead."

The hours will return once consumer demand returns, says Casey Chroust, executive vice president at the Retail Industry Leaders Association, a trade and lobbying group representing retailers. According to Chroust, the belt-tightening has hit inventory and supply-chain spending in addition to labor. He says businesses have had to deal with a pullback on consumer spending as well as "unusual" shopping patterns, including spikes near the first of the month and bi-weekly paydays, when shoppers suddenly come into cash.

"You can't build your full-time staff around spikes," says Chroust. "If you talked to retailers back in the first quarter and in the spring, they were very optimistic, with plans to expand and grow. That momentum has dried up this summer."

But, he adds, "Without a doubt, as the economy recovers and as consumer demand picks up, retailers are going to increase their staffing levels, with more hours and more employees. That's a fact."

The scheduling issue has figured prominently in a high-profile unionization push at Target by the United Food and Commercial Workers. Like other big-box retailers, Target stores rely on massive rosters of part-time workers. The large, flexible workforce lets Target adjust its labor costs according to changing sales. But workers say that there simply aren’t enough hours to go around, that they often get shut out of benefits because of their part-time status, and that their paychecks can change week to week depending on the number of hours a manager has to work with.

A reduced schedule can turn the store manager into the bearer of bad news. Nadir Romo, 28, says he worked at Target stores in California and New York, most recently as a manager leading cashiers and customer service reps in a Brooklyn location. Although he enjoyed the work, Romo says one of the worst parts of the job was informing his staffers that their hours were being trimmed on the next schedule. He said such cuts would be made when the store failed to hit its sales forecasts.

"A lot of part-time people were younger and lived with their parents, and it really didn’t matter how many hours they had," says Romo, a graduate student at the New School who left his Target job in June. "But there were people who were the sole breadwinner, and to go from 35 hours to 20, that was a real problem ... and it's based on something they can't control."

Romo says that his employees often had to switch from working days to nights, and that many of them would be afraid to turn down hours, for fear that the offer wouldn't come again if they did. The imperative, he says, was "keep your week wide open."

"A lot of employees [asked] how do I change my status from part-time to full-time so I could get guaranteed hours and get benefits," Romo says. "The answer was always, there isn't [a way]."

In an emailed statement, a Target spokesperson said schedules are tailored to individual workers' availability. "All team members looking for more hours are continually encouraged to consider opening their availability or cross-training in other areas," she wrote.

The Target workers pushing for a union should be envious of Macy's employees in New York City. In June, workers with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU) ratified a contract with the clothing retailer that, in addition to assuring a $3 raise for over five years, stipulates that both full- and part-time workers would not lose their hours over the course of the contract. It also allows workers to choose a designated day off during the week and pick which nights they will work.

Ken Bordieri, a union official who was involved in the negotiations, says members had growing concerns about the way "full-time" work had been shrinking in retail. He was very satisfied with the contract, which pertains to 4,000 employees, mostly at the flagship store in New York City, and glad that his members will face less uncertainty than many other workers in the industry.

Bordieri compares the present situation to times during the Great Depression, when workers would show up outside factory gates looking for a day's work, and then the boss would pick a few through the fence and tell the rest to go home.

"I'll take you and you and you -- but the rest of you, I'm sorry," says Bordieri. "It's the same thing, only it's brought up to date with computers. It's a very sinister thing when you think about it. There's no commitment to anyone to help them do all the middle-class things that the retail industry was good at doing before."

Kelly, the Sam's Club worker, says those middle-class amenities feel far off at the moment. He most recently transferred into the bakery department, where he's getting around 30 hours per week. It's the most time he's seen in a while, he says, but it still doesn't get him the money and stability he needs.

"It becomes quite stressful," Kelly says. "But I work with a great group of people. And a lot of times that's compensated for [not] having a full paycheck and being able to pay my bills."