I’ve been wondering what color collar retail jobs are. They aren’t white-collar office jobs, which come with high salaries and good tax benefits, and they aren’t blue-collar, which come with lots of photo-op pandering from politicians. (Senators love to tour factory floors, but I haven’t seen one standing behind the checkout counter at a supermarket lately.) They involve a low level of constant physical exertion, low entry qualifications and low wages.

Retail employs around 29 million Americans, including 84,000 people in Maine, in what are starting to be called “name-tag jobs.” I’m one of them.

I work in retail. Newspaper standards prevent me from revealing exactly which big-box store, but it’s one that your mom probably loves. It’s my side job – I am lucky enough to have a traditional 40-hour workweek in an office – but I do evening and weekend shifts at the store. (More than one of these columns has been written inside the break room.) Depending on the week, I usually work 50-65 total hours. And they say millennials are the lazy generation.

Retail workers don’t seem to get talked about much in the media sphere. So let me tell you a little about what I do at work.

I work in what my employer calls “hardlines,” what we might call “general sales floor merchandise.” I take stock from the back rooms, unpack it and put it where it belongs on the shelves.

I lift, squat, swivel and kneel. I help customers find things and answer their questions, if I’m qualified (and sometimes if I’m not). I work the cash registers as I’m needed. I carry items out to the parking lot. I walk around the store putting away all the misplaced merchandise.

I do my best to cheer up crying babies. (I have access to free stickers. Babies love stickers.) Sometimes customers – who, for some reason, my employer insists on referring to as “guests” – get angry and frustrated and take it out on us, although most guests are pretty good. I am on my feet for between five and nine hours at a time. Even so, I’m lucky in that I get to move around for those hours. The cashiers have to stand in one spot for the entirety of their shifts, and standing still seems to take more of a toll on the body than moving around (my back hurts just thinking about it), probably because human beings evolved to walk around, not to just stand alert. They get a stool to sit on only if they have a doctor’s note.

For doing all this and doing it with a smile on my face, I am paid $13 per hour.

I’m a pair of hands and legs in a giant machine; currently, the most efficient mode of transporting goods and information the company has (until they build a robot who can do it for cheaper). I am good at the job I do, but there is no drive to excel, no reason for me to try to put in my absolute best efforts; I will still earn $13 per hour for my labor no matter how much personal energy and effort I put into it. At my office job, you get raises based in part on how long you’ve been with the company, and opportunities for quarterly bonuses and profit-sharing at year’s end. My retail employer offers none of that, at least for us on-the-floor peons.

I like my co-workers and my store supervisors; I want to be helpful for them and do my job well to make their lives easier. But beyond that? A company that doesn’t care about its workers will end up with workers who don’t particularly care about the company, and there are too many employees for the company to particularly care about. We’re numbers on a spreadsheet, easily interchangeable and forgettable. That’s why we have to wear name tags.

My employer is a lot better than other retail operations in a few ways, it’s true. One is scheduling. We receive our schedule at least one week in advance, usually more. We have the ability to swap shifts and request time off (unpaid, usually, but still). There is some flexibility to the uniform code. Sometimes there are free snacks in the break room. Otherwise, no benefits if you work part-time (even if part-time is 29.5 hours per week). I’m lucky in that I don’t have to support a family on my salary alone, but there are plenty of people who do.

Still, I’m proud of what I do. I work hard and make an honest living. I am a tiny gnome in the vast garden of the American consumer economy.

Victoria Hugo-Vidal is a Maine millennial. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: mainemillennial


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