Retail work and the instability of the New Year

by Mark Ortiz | January 30, 2015 4:02 pm

The New Year tends to be a time for new beginnings, but for Americans who work in seasonal jobs in the retail industry, the New Year can be a very unsettling time. The rush for material goods has finally subsided, and work hours disappear along with the jobs, creating only a select number of positions for seasonal workers.

For people with permanent retail jobs, the holidays present the best opportunity to generate income for the year, but for those people hired to be seasonal help, the holiday season is an unstable trial period that often ends in unemployment.

The retail industry has continued to hire more seasonal workers since 2009’s great recession, this year hiring over 600,000 people.  But in recent years, the retail industry is also responsible for cutting more jobs after the holiday rush than any other industry. In January of 2013 11,400 retail positions were terminated, a 71% increase from the previous year.

Janelle is a 21-year-old seasonal hire who said she has mostly enjoyed her experience working at Macy’s.

“People on my floor make it fun,” she said, but mentioned that she felt she had been treated unfairly as a seasonal employee by her peers.

“Some of the associates take advantage of the new seasonal [hire], for example, leaving us more work and disappearing often.” Seasonal helpers are expected to take direction from managers, but with management busy during the holidays, they often find themselves taking direction from their coworkers.

Expectations vary, but most employers require that seasonal hires pick up the grunt work. This includes covering the graveyard shift, 6am-opening shifts, and midnight closing shifts. The position can be great for an employee wanting to test out the retail industry, but promises little to those hoping for stable work throughout the year.

“The hours started at 20, then escalated to 39 and are now back at 20,” said Janelle, commenting on scheduling changes that come with the changing seasons. The weeks after Black Friday tend to be the busiest for retail workers, but the weeks between the 4th and the 17th of December required some associates to work close to 60 hours.

When I asked about the prospect of work in the new year, most seasonal workers told me they either had other work lined up or that they would be ready to search for work. It’s not uncommon to hear about a friend taking on a job driving cabs for Lyft or Uber, or delivering groceries with Instacart to supplement their part-time retail jobs.

Janelle felt she did a good job this holiday season, but she is still unsure if she will be hired permanently. “They might hire me,” she said, “but I’m going to look for another job.”

Featured image via Eric Seelig:

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