01/18/2012 09:24 am ET Updated Jan 19, 2012

Protesters Speak Out Against Low Pay And Lack Of Benefits at Retail's Big Show

NEW YORK -- On the third day of the National Retail Federation's annual convention, workers, union members and activists gathered outside the Javits Center to protest in the rain. "Mic check!" the crowd chanted in Occupy Wall Street style. "What do we need? Good Jobs!" The protesters' chants and signs aimed to catch the attention of the estimated 24,000 convention-goers, including executives from most major retail and tech companies.

With a crucial primary coming up in South Carolina Saturday, the Republican hopefuls are clamoring for new jobs, which they say will help fix Americans' dependence on government assistance. Yet many Americans who do have jobs, particularly in the retail sector, are paid so little that they are forced to rely on benefits like food stamps and Medicaid, according to a report released Tuesday and timed with the protest.

According to the report from the Retail Action Project, a nonprofit advocacy group, 34 percent of retail workers in New York City who don't receive benefits from their employers depend on public assistance. Fifty one percent of retail workers make less than $10 an hour, and minorities and women fare even worse in terms of pay and benefits than their peers. The report, co-authored by Stephanie Luce of CUNY's Murphy Institute, was based on a survey of 436 workers in the New York metropolitan area.

Meanwhile, the National Retail Federation is in the midst of its own campaign, "Retail Means Jobs," which advocates for the retail sector as an engine of economic growth, often through support of pro-business policies. According to the Federation, one in four jobs in the U.S. are supported by retail. Protesters argue that these seldom pay enough to keep frontline workers out of poverty.

"I got very few reactions from people [coming from the conference]," said Kim Ortiz, a volunteer organizer for Retail Action Project who was handing out flyers. "But the cab drivers and street traffic were interested. I'd say about one in six took a flyer."

Low pay was not the only complaint. Speakers like Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union, and Talisa Erazo, a retail worker and a Retail Action Project leadership board member, spoke about workers' lack of health benefits and sick days. Only 29 percent of retail workers surveyed received benefits through their job, according to the report.

Another hot topic was the politics of scheduling. Stores often employ workers on a part-time basis to avoid paying benefits, according to Carrie Gleason, Retail Action Project's director. Part time workers then turn to Medicaid for these benefits, or even hospital emergency rooms when they make just a smidgen more than it takes to qualify for state programs.

The National Retail Federation, which launched its jobs campaign in September, responded to the protest with a statement that highlighted the positive sides of part-time work.

"Mothers who only want to work part-time, students who can only put in long hours during the summer or over breaks, and senior citizens wanting to stay active after retirement are all drawn to opportunities in retail," Tita Freeman, senior vice president of the National Retail Federation, wrote in a statement.

"We are pleased our Retail Means Jobs campaign is getting attention," Freeman added. "We were unaffected by the protest and continue to engage in a constructive dialogue with businesses and workers across the country on the topic of retail careers."

Since September, the "Retail Means Jobs" campaign has pursued its own political interests, which often conflict with those of union and labor groups. Since the launch of the campaign, the Federation has advocated for a corporate tax break and against new rules that would make it quicker for unions to elect members. In February, the group also testified before Congress against the portion of the Affordable Care Act that would penalize employers who don't offer health insurance.

Though convention attendees seemed to generally ignore the protesters, the Retail Action Project hopes that its press conference and report will raise awareness about what they consider unfair labor practices, something that could eventually lead to changes in company policy.

"Retailers reported record profits this holiday season," said Tami Tyree, a member volunteer organizer for Retail Action Project who spoke at the protest. "It's unfair that these big companies are making money and the people on the frontline of stores don't see a cent."