Let’s care about retail workers beyond Thanksgiving

It’s just about time for that annual American tradition.

You know the one: when we actually care about retail workers.

Some of us do, at least. As more stores open on Thanksgiving day, and more workers are forced to leave their families, we’re seeing the usual protests: petitions, lists of good stores (still closed on Thanksgiving) and bad stores (open before the turkey cools).

Given that Black Friday is a dying concept anyway, there’s even less reason for shoppers to join the stampede – and more reason for stores to show some restraint. Instead, some are opening even earlier this year.

“It is a sign of how little stores care about their employees and their employees’ lives,” said Zeynep Ton, who teaches operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Business. “And it’s, I think, part of the whole picture of just seeing their people as a cost, and not realizing that these are human beings who have lives.”

In a season that’s supposed to be about empathy, it’s worth thinking about that context: Daily life, outside the Thanksgiving spotlight, for a group of American workers that is trying to play by the rules.

There are about 15 million retail workers in the United States. Roughly 20 percent of them work for big box stores – the type most likely to succumb to Black Friday-creep – often for low wages, scant benefits, and part-time hours.

Time-management technology makes those indignities worse, said Stephanie Luce, who teaches labor studies at the City University of New York. Software now can pinpoint the precise amount of bare-minimum staffing a store needs, sometimes down to 15-minute increments, she said. To maximize efficiency, stores post their employees’ schedules mere weeks in advance – and often force workers to submit schedule-change requests to their managers, on paper.

Good luck to anyone who needs to schedule child care or a second job, or is trying to go back to school.

Retail executives will throw up their hands and say they’re driven by demand: the low-price arms race, combined with the American impulse to shop at every humanly possible moment, plus the pressure from shareholders to show short-term growth, regardless of long-term effects.

The frustrating thing is that it’s actually quite possible to make money, offer low prices, and treat workers with dignity. Ton studies companies that use what she calls a “good jobs strategy,” such as Costco and Trader Joe’s. (Both are closed on Thanksgiving.) These stores tend to pay more, but that’s not their only secret. They empower employees to make decisions. They cross-train workers, so people can stock shelves and work the cash registers. That means consistently better service for customers, too.

Which brings us back to the shoppers, the bargain hunters, the bulk of us – who pay low prices consistently, and deserve some of the blame.

Luce has studied retail wages. She found that if Walmart raised its pay to $12.50 per hour for all of its associates, nationwide – and all of that were were passed on to consumers – the average Walmart shopper would pay an extra $12 a year.

Really, that’s a bargain. And something to think about. Year-round.