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Retail workers balance financial need with pandemic risk

When Terri first went back to work at her retail job in June, she actually felt safer than she does now.

“Everybody was still pretty nervous and people had masks on,” she said. “And they were trying to keep their distance.”

Terri is a sales associate at an Ikea in California. We’re not using her real name because she worries about losing her job. As time went on and lots of stores and restaurants reopened, she noticed customers relaxing.

“I think that that’s when people were like, ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal if these places are open.’ It’s a little bit harder to get people to understand that there’s still danger,” she said.

Some customers don’t wear masks or they get too close to her, she said. And she ends up in other situations that make her feel unsafe, like when she helps customers load online orders into their cars. She might be touching a door handle or a seat and afterwards, “I have nowhere nearby for me to wash my hands,” she said. “And if I have 20 to 30 customers waiting for us to bring our product out, I also don’t have time to wash my hands.”

So she resorts to hand sanitizer or alcohol wipes.

In a statement, Ikea outlined its safety measures, like hand sanitizer stations and plexiglass screens, and said the safety and well-being of its employees is its highest priority. 

Holiday retail jobs are difficult and thankless to begin with — the long hours, crushing crowds and blaring holiday music like “All I Want for Christmas is You” playing over, and over, and over. And this year, workers also have to contend with a deadly virus at a time when cases around the country are rising quickly

Terri would rather not have to work in retail this holiday season. But she can’t afford to quit. It’s her main source of income and she needs the job for health insurance.

Trina Traylor is in a similar position. Her main job is as a union organizer, but she picks up a seasonal retail job every year, for 25 years now. That has meant a lot of long hours and missed holidays with her family.

“I hate it,” Traylor said. “But, you know, it’s just something I have to do.”

This year, as in the past, she’ll be selling perfume for a company that operates inside Macy’s.

“I have people that are trying to talk me out of doing it,” she said.

But she needs the money for Christmas presents and to pay her taxes in April. She usually owes.

“So I don’t have a choice but to do it, but I’m very nervous,” she said. “I have one of those face shields. But, I don’t know if you’ve ever worn those face shields, you can’t even see out of them. They’re real blurry.”

Some retail workers are deciding it’s not worth the risk this year. Traylor has a friend who’s in that situation.

“She’s scared that, you know, if anything happens, that she would take it home to her mom, and her mom probably wouldn’t make it,” Traylor said.

A recent survey from Korn Ferry found that over 40% of retailers are having a hard time finding seasonal workers this year.

The survey also found that most retailers are not offering bonuses or hazard pay to attract workers, which sounds about right. Trina and Terri both said they have not gotten a pay bump because of the pandemic.




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