As stores shutter due to private equity, automation, and increased competition, the most vulnerable employees are at risk.
In retail, few people have gone unscathed by the upheaval that’s battered the industry over the past decade. The rise of online shopping, changing consumer tastes, massive debt burdens weighing on retailers’ balance sheets, and increasing automation have resulted in bankruptcies, layoffs, reduced pay, and lost severance. The people hit hardest? Women and people of color, groups that make up the majority of retail’s lowest-paid workforce.
According to a study released this week, one factor in particular has been responsible for the loss of 600,000 retail jobs, plus another 728,000 in related industries: private equity ownership. Ten of the 14 largest retail bankruptcies since 2012 — Payless ShoeSource, Toys R Us, and Claire’s among them — have been at companies saddled with debt due to leveraged buyouts by private equity firms.
The massive scale of job losses is particularly striking given the industry’s overall growth; retail had added more than a million jobs in the past decade as the economy has recovered from the recession. It’s also expected to continue growing even as automation eats away at the lowest tier of workers: While the number of cashiers is projected to decline by 2026, retail employment overall is expected to swell to 16.2 million jobs (up from 15.8 million in 2016), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These private equity deals were common beginning in the years leading up to the financial crisis: Firms like Sycamore Partners and Bain Capital raised billions in order to buy — and, they said, turn around — retail businesses from Neiman Marcus to Wet Seal. In many cases, though, critics say the arrangements left retailers so cash-strapped that they couldn’t invest in store improvements or hiring new employees, making them even less competitive in an increasingly challenging sector.
Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren introduced legislation last week targeting the business model; in a post on Medium, she called some of private equity’s most lucrative practices “legalized looting — looting that makes a handful of Wall Street managers very rich while costing thousands of people their jobs, putting valuable companies out of business, and hurting communities across the country.”
“When a private equity firm steps in, it’s a classic case of ‘Heads I win, tails you lose,” Heather Slavkin Corzo, a senior fellow at Americans for Financial Reform and the director of capital markets policy for the AFL-CIO, a federation of labor unions, told the Washington Post. “They have a real short-term focus on extracting as much cash as possible, as quickly as possible.” (Private equity groups dispute this assessment, arguing that their goal is to grow the businesses they invest in, and that the sector’s struggles can be blamed on outside factors like Amazon.)
Bankruptcies, of course, also meant layoffs, including 33,000 at Toys R Us last summer and 16,000 at Payless this spring. And these layoffs, according to the report’s co-authors, a coalition of progressive nonprofit groups including United for Respect and the Center for Popular Democracy, have disproportionately affected women and people of color, who are more likely to work in the sectors most affected, including apparel and general merchandise.
While the industry overall is fairly evenly split along gender lines, with women comprising 52 percent of retail workers, according to the BLS, it becomes less balanced when you home in on specific types of stores. Men, for instance, tend to have jobs selling higher-ticket items such as cars and computers, while women are more likely to work in clothing stores, where they make up 76 percent of the workforce. This stratification exacerbates the wage gap between male and female full-time retail salespeople: Men in the role make nearly 50 percent more than women do ($38,000 versus $26,000 in median annual earnings).
Black and Latinx retail workers, meanwhile, are far more likely to live at or near the poverty line — $25,750 for a family of four — than their white counterparts (43 percent and 42 percent, compared with one in four overall). Along with Asian workers, they comprise 43 percent of retail clothing sector workers and 46 percent of general merchandise employees. Retail workers of color (and particularly women of color) are also more likely to hold low-wage roles such as cashier jobs.
When a worker in this position is laid off, they not only face a financial hit — a particularly heavy burden for someone who is unlikely to have savings — but also systemic barriers like hiring discrimination when they go to find a new job.
Soon, the industry’s lowest-paid workers will also have to brace themselves against the incoming threat of automation. A widely cited 2013 study found that retail salespeople and cashiers are among the jobs most at risk of being eliminated as technology advances — a process that’s already in motion with the increasing prevalence of self-checkout and the rollout of retail spaces like cashierless Amazon Go stores.
Jobs that involve repetitive, lower-skilled labor are the most susceptible to automation, affecting many fields with a high concentration of black and Latinx workers, such as agriculture, manufacturing, food preparation, and transportation, as well as low-wage retail jobs. Women, too, are again in a vulnerable position: Even as they account for less than half of the US workforce, they hold 57 percent of the jobs that are likely to be either eliminated or changed significantly by 2026, according to a 2018 report from the World Economic Forum.
While the so-called “retail apocalypse” may be overblown (we’re still buying plenty, just not through the same channels that we used to), the industry’s future is up for grabs — which means, ultimately, so are millions of workers’.
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