The state of retail jobs has gotten plenty of press lately, but not for the rosiest reasons: Fast-food workers in dozens of cities went on strike in September in an effort to call attention to low wages in the industry. Unpredictable work schedules have come under fire for creating instability for retail employees and their families. The Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a case in which Amazon.com warehouse workers say that they should be paid for the 30 minutes they spend waiting in line for a security check before they leave the facility for the day.
As these stories have piled up, the industry’s biggest advocacy group, the National Retail Federation, believes that lawmakers and the broader public increasingly have negative perceptions about retail employment. And so the NRF is fighting back, launching a campaign this week to try to change those views.
“We’ve got to create a new understanding of this industry and what it means, not only to the broader economy, but to the communities” where businesses are located, said Bill Thorne, NRF’s senior vice president for communications.
During a campaign it has dubbed Retail Jobs Week, NRF is set to release research that it says will demonstrate the impact of the industry’s jobs on state and regional economies. It will release a study from the University of Georgia on Wednesday that found that retail wages are “highly competitive” with those in other sectors. NRF has also launched a social media campaign and had planned to hold an outdoor event Wednesday evening in Washington that has since been cancelled due to a weather forecast for heavy thunderstorms.
Thorne said this latest publicity effort is especially geared at policymakers. With the midterm election around the corner and a lame-duck session of Congress approaching, NRF is hoping to influence lawmakers on several issues, including whether to raise the minimum wage.
“We just want to make sure that these legislators know they’re not making these decisions in a vacuum,” Thorne said.
While the NRF is focused on changing the perception of retail jobs, labor advocates argue that the problem is deeper than perception, said Sasha Hammad, director of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union’s Retail Action Project.
“What the NRF could do is really take a look at the working conditions of front line-workers, who have families, who have grandparents to care for, who have tuition to pay,” Hammad said. “In many cases, for them, these jobs don’t cut it.”
NRF earlier this year called a proposal to raise the minimum wage an “anti-job tax” that it believed would choke job growth in the retail industry. However, just last week, the group’s incoming chairman raised questions about whether NRF would change its stance on the issue. Kip Tindell, the chief executive of The Container Store who is set to become NRF chairman in November, told Bloomberg News that he planned to work in his new role to get the organization to “moderate” its position.
Thorne said NRF welcomes Tindell’s point of view and that he expects debate within the organization’s membership about the minimum wage to have “a diverse tone and tenor to it.” Still, Thorne added that he didn’t think the timing was right for a fight over boosting the wage floor.
“If we’re going to engage in that, let’s get the economy moving in a stronger, better direction. And then let’s have that conversation,” Thorne said.
Update: This post has been updated to reflect that the University of Georgia study will be released on Wednesday, not Thursday.