I am the elephant in the retail living room. Operating 4,500 stores nationwide and employing 1.4 million U.S. workers, I am not only the nation’s largest retail employer; I am America’s largest private employer of any kind. With one in every ten American retail employees working for me, I have the capacity to reshape the landscape for retail work.
So far, I have used this power to lower wages, cut hours, and deny benefits to my workforce, reducing the quality of retail jobs as a whole. My history of using extreme methods to push down the cost of labor stretches back at least to the 1960s, when the shrewd fellow who got me going set up shell companies to dodge federal minimum wage laws that would have forced him to pay employees $1.15 an hour. While he was ultimately forced by federal courts to drop the scheme, my continued practice of paying poverty-level wages and operating at the limits of the law to discourage unemployment and workers’ compensation claims and deter employees from working overtime has been well documented.
A 2005 study found that my employees earn 28 percent less, on average, than workers employed by other large retailers. At the same time, my sheer size and competitive influence exert a downward pressure on wages at other retailers. A study from the University of California finds that my store openings in communities lead to the replacement of better paying jobs with jobs that pay less. The study concludes that in 2000, retail employees nationwide would have taken home $4.5 billion more in their total paycheck if I had not been around.
Yet I could easily afford to set a different pattern for the retail sector—and, as the country’s most profitable set of shops whose shareholders are among the wealthiest people on Earth, do so without passing any of the costs to customers. The six heirs to my fortune have more wealth than the bottom 42 percent of American families combined, with holdings of almost $90 billion. Since last year, they’ve received more than $1.8 billion in dividend payments.
By raising wages and putting more than $4 billion into the hands of my underpaid workers, I could have a significant impact on retail employment and the overall economy, while taking the lead as a trailblazer for the industry as a whole.
This Who Am I adapted from Catherine Ruetschlin's Retail's Hidden Potential (www.demos.org)