This was my mom’s life when she worked at Macy’s, and much of her life in retail after my parents divorced. The long hours, the exhaustion afterward, the total unpredictability of her schedule and her constant fear that she would lose her job. Yet every day, we were grateful for her work. It came at a high cost, but it allowed us to become financially secure at a time when she had no other avenues to do so.
I was reminded of this when I saw the news last week that Macy’s would furlough 125,000 employees. The furlough, the company hopes, is temporary, and many employees may qualify for government support while they await the return of economic activity. But for families like mine, the hiatus cuts off a lifeline. And it underscores the precariousness of working in retail: Laborers in this sector are always just one crisis or downturn away from losing everything.
My family was fortunate: My dad was the furthest thing from a deadbeat; he never missed a child support payment. But there were still other expenses, and for my mom — someone without a college education, someone who dropped out of high school while growing up in the barrio of East Los Angeles — the opportunities to return to work after the divorce were limited.
The retail industry is filled with people like her. Women make up roughly 73 percent of all the employees who work in clothing stores, and 24.2 percent of them are Hispanic or Latino, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Such jobs rarely require a college education, so the barrier to entry is low. The wages are still far too low, as the average hourly wage is $11.63, barely enough to survive and certainly not enough to provide for two children.
After a series of other jobs, my mom finally got a position at Robinsons-May, which was later acquired by Macy’s. She worked in the children’s department. Her pay was only $10 an hour, but it was a start. Soon she entered a training program meant to foster talent, and within eight months, she was promoted.
The wages grew as she moved up the ladder, whether it was as an assistant manager in women’s shoes or men’s suits. But the hours were still brutal, sometimes 60 or 70 hours a week. We would barely see her between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, because she was busy making other people’s holidays merry and bright. When my mom started making $40,000, my stepdad Bob got a cake to celebrate.
She moved to working men’s and women’s shoes before becoming a manager for men’s suits and shoes and the children’s department. By the time my mom left Macy’s, three years after she’d started, her salary was nearly $50,000. As a result, my family never went without anything. My mom was able to send me to private Christian schools. I got guitar lessons and joined the Boy Scouts. My sister wore the trendiest clothes and took ice skating lessons.
My mom moved to other retail chain stores and has made more than $90,000 in the years since. That hard work was why my sister and I never needed to worry about anything but our studies. My sister’s career as a teacher and mine as a journalist are due to my mom’s work at Macy’s.
Still, there was constant fear. The continual stress takes its toll on the body. When she worked at another retailer, my mom fell down the stairs of our apartment, breaking multiple bones in her left arm. But she was informed that she might not have enough time to recover and undergo physical therapy under the Family Medical Leave Act, because she had taken leave for gallbladder surgery within the same calendar year. (She was given an exception because of her excellent performance.) We thankfully never had to move in with someone else and stayed in our two-bedroom apartment until I left for college, but the loss of independence was a constant concern.
All this is why, when I heard people talk about choosing to expose themselves to the virus over causing a recession, I thought about how devastating it would be to some families if their primary (or only) breadwinners landed in the hospital. It’s why, even though I worry about the families that depend on retail paychecks, I recognize the legitimate need for social distancing. Businesses can rebound; dead people don’t.
These days, even though my mom lives on the opposite coast from her kids, I don’t worry about her any more than it is normal for an adult kid to worry about his parents. She still works in retail but doesn’t have the stress of providing for a family. She earned her GED three years ago, owns a home and has enough savings to help her ride out this pandemic. She takes social isolation seriously, and when she does go out, she wears a mask. But the road to security shouldn’t have so many nightmare-filled detours.