At any moment of this past decade, U.S. retail jobs have supported about 15 million workers.

At any moment of this past decade, U.S. retail jobs have supported about 15 million workers. / Getty Images/Tetra images RF

People lick their fingers, touch money and hand it to you. They take money out of bras or hand you bills soaking wet with lake water. When you become a grocery cashier, says Rachel Baker, you quickly learn that retail is really filthy.

She thinks back to how she landed at her store in southern Oregon, after college and a couple other jobs. Grocery work was meant to be a way station, a steady paycheck until she found her forever career. It's a very common retail story. Five years, two stores and a little promotion later, there you are, still ringing up shoppers until 9:30 at night.

"Nobody is in retail because they really want to be; it's a bridge to another place," Baker says and wonders: What if it didn't have to be this way? "It would be really nice if we could make that environment so that that's not necessarily the case, because some people don't have that choice."

Rachel Baker, who left retail during the

Rachel Baker, who left retail during the "great resignation" wave, wonders why the industry cannot try to turn itself into something more than stopover employment. / Courtesy of Rachel Baker

There is no reliable data on how long retail workers stay in the industry. It's famously a common first job for young people. But retail actually employs almost as many people over 55 as it does people under 25.

These are jobs to which millions of people return again and again, over a lifetime.

Earlene Laguna stayed with retail more than 30 years. Starting as a young single mom in the 1980s, she joined Mervyn's department store in Yuma, Ariz., for less than $5 an hour. It took a few years on the job, but she got health insurance, moved out of from her parents into subsidized housing, then went on to Pier 1, Nordstrom and Macy's.

"What used to kill me is we would get part-timers who would come in and say, 'Well, this isn't my real job,' like it was almost embarrassing," Laguna says. "And I'm thinking, 'Well, this is my real job, you know, and I'm proud of doing this job.' "

Earlene Laguna has spent decades in retail, starting at department stores, moving on to higher-end brands and landing at Amazon.

Earlene Laguna has spent decades in retail, starting at department stores, moving on to higher-end brands and landing at Amazon. / Courtesy of Earlene Laguna

A few times, Laguna pondered getting a college degree, but raising a child around crazy store schedules left little time, money or energy to study. With more experience, her paychecks got a little bigger. The longer she stayed, the less she felt like she could leave.

At Macy's, almost all her coworkers had spent years in retail. One had joined the store when it was still called Robinsons-May.

The pandemic economy unleased a minor revolution.

In July, a record 678,000 workers quit retail. In every month since April, around 4% of this huge workforce left their jobs.

"I was really burnt out. I was really, really burnt out," says Shelby Miller, who left her assistant manager position at Princeton Running Company. Bosses "were expecting things to be functioning at 100% when even the world wasn't functioning at 100%."

Declared essential during the pandemic, store workers became the enforcers of social distancing and mask wearing. Baker, in Oregon, says stores always had a skewed power dynamic with shoppers acting like the own the place. She prided herself on de-escalating and connecting, but now felt her body bracing from one customer to the next.

Retailers raced to fill over a million open jobs. Suddenly, wages began rising after decades of stagnation. Median retail pay is $13.97.

Among retailers' latest hiring perks are offers of free college tuition. What signal does that send?

The corporate pitch is to help workers grow within the company, and some do. But free-college promotion can also be seen as an acknowledgement that store jobs are meant to be a temporary bridge — a bridge that at any moment of this past decade has supported about 15 million workers.

"Obviously, education is good ... but it seems much more meaningful to give people better jobs in the jobs that they're actually in right now," says Terri Gerstein, a former New York state labor official who's now at Harvard's Labor and Worklife Program.

"We're always going to need people in these jobs, so why is educating some subset of people so they don't have to do these jobs — like, why is that the answer?"

The matter might become even more pressing for the new generation of workers. Hana Ben-Shabat, author of Gen Z 360, says her surveys found that younger people overwhelmingly value loyalty, telling her they are eager to stay with one employer for many years.

For that to work, many retail workers say a few things should improve. Pay always tops the list. Chaotic schedules. Lack of paid time off and pressure not take it. Unsupportive managers. Few options for promotions.

Laguna, for example, spent 16 years as assistant manager at Pier 1. She was keen to grow, but her boss wasn't going anywhere, and her only option was transferring from Arizona to California. She couldn't swing it either financially, or personally.

Laguna now works at an Amazon warehouse, joking she's "a cog in the machine."

Baker, the longtime cashier, left retail in the nationwide "great resignation" wave. She's now a rent-relief specialist at a nonprofit, still blown away by having free evenings and weekends.

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