Charmaine Givens-Thomas, age 61, has worked at a Walmart in Chicago, Illinois for eight years. She is now, she told ThinkProgress, what Walmart considers a “valued associate.” But she still makes just $12.05 an hour — an increase from her starting wage of $8.75, but not what she would consider a living wage.
“If I’m a valued associate, why can’t you pay me a living wage?” she asks. “Not to go on a trip or buy myself a fur or a diamond, but to keep a roof over my head.”
Women like Givens-Thomas make up about half of the retail workforce. But compared to their male counterparts, they are far more likely to live in poverty, accounting for 55 percent of low-wage retail workers, according to a new report from the think tank Demos. The typical woman who works as a salesperson makes just $10.58 an hour, or about $22,000 a year working full time. That’s below the poverty line for a family of four. In fact, 1.3 million women in the industry live in or near poverty.
That’s the case for Givens-Thomas. To get by, her daughter, who lives with her, has signed up for food stamps, and Givens-Thomas gets subsidies for utilities. She also makes use of food pantries. “Anything that’s available, we would definitely go apply,” she said. “You’ve got to survive, you’ve got to do whatever’s necessary.” She’s not surviving on her wages alone. Her rent is $950 a month, which is lower than the average for the area, but still high enough that she at times has fallen behind and been in jeopardy of losing her housing.
The women who make up the retail sales-force aren’t teenagers earning pocket money. More than 95 percent of those who work year round are 20 or older and more than 40 percent are raising children. Nearly half contribute at least 50 percent of their family’s income, and one in six are the only earner in their families.
Part of the reason women are struggling in retail is that they suffer from a wage gap. Throughout the industry, the typical woman makes 72 percent of what a man makes. Salespeople have an even bigger gap, as women make $4 less per hour than men on average.
But these problems would be at least partially solved, the Demos report argues, if retail companies with 1,000 or more workers paid them at least $25,000 a year for full-time work. More than half of women who work full time year round at retail companies earn below that level and are 22 percent more likely than men to do so. If wages were increased to that threshold, 3.2 million female retail workers would get a raise, typically by about 27 percent. That compares to 2.5 million men. That would lift 437,000 women above the poverty level and significantly narrow the wage gap, the report notes.
The benefits of such a pay raise would trickle outward as well. Demos estimates that GDP would grow by $6.9 to $8.9 billion from the increase in women’s pay given that they would be able to spend more money on goods and services. That would support the creation of 105,000 to 136,000 new jobs.
The companies themselves may counter that it would be too expensive to spend so much more on compensation. But the report finds that raising base wages to $25,000 a year for all workers would come to $21.5 billion, which is 4.1 percent of total payroll for the sector and less than 1 percent of total annual sales. Instead of having to shell out new money, the companies could cover the cost with the $26.3 billion the top 10 largest companies made in stock repurchases, a financial move Demos argues doesn’t bring the company much value. Even if they decided to pass the full cost on to their consumers, it would cost the average household just 15 cents more per trip, or less than $18 a year.
The report notes that women working in retail face another problem: erratic schedules. While Givens-Thomas is technically a full-time worker, she says she hasn’t worked more than about 24 to 34 hours a week in a couple of years. “The hours just seem to shrunk down further and further,” she said. “It puts me at a major disadvantage for trying to live and survive with a family.”
She could make herself available for any shifts to pick up extra hours, but that could mean coming back after an eight-hour day or working overnight. Or she could work another part-time job. But she says she’s too exhausted for either option.
Nearly one in three women working part time retail jobs wants to be full time, and even the full time workers may not know exactly when their hours will be. A survey of hundreds of New York City retail workers found that more than a third are sent home earlier than expected, often if fewer shoppers show up than anticipated, 20 percent say they have to be available at any time for a call-in shift, and some even say their schedules change by the hour. Meanwhile, these workers are given little paid time off if something comes up: Less than half get paid sick days. “Ever-changing schedules make it more difficult for working mothers to plan child care arrangements, for workers to get education or training that could help them get a better job, and for employees trying to supplement their incomes with a second job to establish a compatible schedule,” the report says. “In effect, unstable and unpredictable schedules deprive women in retail of both immediate income and opportunities to rise up.”
Givens-Thomas is one of the Walmart moms who have started going on strike since Friday to protest the working conditions, continuing the strikes that started on Black Friday in 2012 and continued throughout last year. Two core demands have been to pay all full-time workers at least $25,000 a year and to make full-time positions available to all who want them.