Serving Up a Side of Discrimination: Retail Jobs Are Driving Inequality

A report from the NAACP and Demos turns the spotlight on America's racial pay gap.

(Photo: Mitch Dumke/Getty Images)

Jun 2, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Ringing up soy lattes at a cash register, unloading boxes of produce in a stockroom, or taking unwanted clothing out of dressing rooms—those are just some of the tasks that the nation’s retail workers perform every day, often while earning a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. There’s no state in America where someone working full-time at that salary can afford a fair-market-rate one- or two-bedroom apartment, which is why activists have been fighting for pay to be boosted to $15 per hour.

But although times are tough for most folks working in retail, a new report from the NAACP and the think tank Demos reveals that black and Latino workers and their families are disproportionately impacted by the low wages, haphazard work schedules, and occupational inequality within the industry.

Indeed, just as there’s a gender pay gap, in retail, there’s also a racial pay gap. The report found that overall, 70 percent of black and Latino retail workers earn less than $15, compared with 58 percent of their white peers. The report’s authors also found that black or Latino cashiers earn only 90 percent of what their white peers earn. And retail salespeople of color—the employees who work the floor at a clothing or a big-box electronics store—take home just 75 percent of the salary of their white colleagues.

The disparity is primarily because “retail employers sort black and Latino retail workers into lower-paid positions and away from supervisory roles,” wrote the report's authors. Instead of being hired for—or promoted to—better-paying management or supervisory positions, these workers tend to be employed in less lucrative cashier positions. Black workers in particular are on the receiving end of discrimination. They are a full 11 percent of the retail labor force, but they only make up 6 percent of managers. Workers of color are also less likely to get assigned a full-time schedule or to be given the part-time hours they request.

So, Why Should You Care? Nearly 8 million people work in the retail industry. According to data released in March 2015 from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, it’s the occupation with the largest employment in the nation—and it’s the second-largest source of work for black folks. More than half have some education after high school, yet 17 percent of black retail workers are living below the poverty line. That means these workers and their children are potentially trapped in the cycle of generational poverty: Think the fast-food workers who put in 40 hours per week but still need to apply for food stamps to feed their families. They barely have enough to make ends meet, which means they don't have cash to pump back into the economy. As a result, taxpayers end up footing the bill.

RELATED: The Container Store Pays Retail Workers $48,000 a Year, Still Turns a Profit

The problem could worsen. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that by 2060 America will be 30 percent Latino and nearly 15 percent black. If racial discrimination against black and Latino workers continues to be the norm in the retail industry—white folks as managers and people of color overwhelmingly employed in lower-paying jobs—the effect could be damaging to America's long-term prosperity and global standing.

The report suggests raising the minimum wage to $15 as a way to lift retail workers across the board out of poverty. "Raising pay for workers at the bottom of the income distribution will improve living standards for black and Latino workers employed in low-wage jobs, and reduce the racial wage gap," wrote the report's authors.