Let's Talk About Retail Jobs, 2020 Contenders

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The discussion around jobs in a presidential campaign always seems to center on the manufacturing industry. We see candidates touring factory floors. We read richly drawn dispatches from the Rust Belt about how displaced workers are viewing the political contest. We watch candidates parry debate questions about positions that have been shipped overseas. Just this week, President Donald Trump proudly touted recent growth in manufacturing jobs in his State of the Union address, hinting his re-election campaign will feature plenty of talk about the sector.

It’s left me bewildered that candidates don’t spend more time talking about other kinds of jobs – specifically, retail jobs. The industry has employed far more people than manufacturing has for well over a decade. It includes legions of entry-level positions occupied by workers just trying to make ends meet. And, like so many other corners of the economy, retail is being dramatically reshaped by technology.

Let's Talk About Retail Jobs, 2020 Contenders

That’s why I’m heartened to see that the 2020 crop of Democratic contenders seem primed to force a robust discussion about employment in the sector – and on issues ranging from how companies approach pay and benefits to the kinds of legislative policies that could lift up or protect workers.

Some marquee presidential hopefuls clearly have been contemplating the struggles of retail workers. Senator Bernie Sanders has railed against Amazon.com Inc. and Walmart Inc. in recent months, encouraging them to raise pay. Senator Elizabeth Warren recently sent a letter to Sears Holdings Corp. chairman Eddie Lampert blasting him for his stewardship of the bankrupt retailer, including decisions she said “short-changed Sears’ workers.” Senators Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker have met with Toys “R” Us employees who seek protection for workers that get ensnared in leveraged buyouts gone wrong.

And with former Starbucks Corp. CEO Howard Schultz testing the waters on an independent presidential bid, we’re bound to see ample analysis of the best and the worst of the coffee giant as an employer. After all, this is a company that launched an innovative program to provide a free college education to its workers. But it’s also a company that came under fire several years ago for scheduling practices that made it hard for baristas to juggle work and home life.

These story lines can and should put a spotlight on how retailers are taking care of their employees, and whether what they’re doing is sufficient. There is much that can be done on the policy front to give those workers stability and security. And given that union membership is less common in the retail sector than in the private sector overall, workers in this industry could use the support. 

I expect we’ll hear many Democratic candidates pushing for an increase in the federal minimum wage, and that’s a good idea. In addition to helping front-line retail workers more comfortably pay their bills, we’ve seen this can be good for business, too. As I’ve noted before, raising base pay was an essential ingredient in Walmart Inc.’s turnaround. Elsewhere, Costco Wholesale Corp. has long had a reputation for paying its workers more generously than others in retail, and that hasn’t kept it from sustaining a mostly steady run of rising profits. 

Let's Talk About Retail Jobs, 2020 Contenders

Working in retail would be a more stable and appealing proposition if it also included some type of paid family leave. It’s true that there isn’t a broad consensus on how this should work, including whether employers or the government should foot the bill for it. But the idea is generally popular, and at present, retail and food-service workers typically don’t have access to this option. Candidates should be sketching out plausible pathways for changing that. President Trump briefly nodded in his Tuesday speech to embracing paid family leave, a policy which his daughter, Ivanka Trump, has also talked up

Let's Talk About Retail Jobs, 2020 Contenders

I realize that even if candidates breathe fire about the challenges of retail workers, it hardly ensures Congress will take action. And yet, the sheer act of high-profile politicians talking about retail jobs might help affect change. When Amazon raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour in November, it was hard not to see it as a response – at least in part – to Sanders’s criticism. So if big chains know presidential candidates are crisscrossing New Hampshire and Iowa hammering poor retail labor practices and singing praises of generous ones, that offers fresh reason to be bolder on these issues. Best Buy Co., for example, has recently launched backup childcare for all full-time and part-time employees. You can imagine a scenario where some politician gives the electronics retailer kudos for that on the campaign trail, and then others feeling pressured to follow suit. 

I’d also like to see presidential candidates address the issue of how we might make more clearly defined pathways for workers to go from entry-level clerk to store manager or corporate office employee. Implementing policies aimed at making college more affordable may be the best way to do this; still, company-sponsored programs that invest in workers also could help. Retailers might get a more motivated workforce if employees knew they had a real shot at climbing the corporate ladder, or at the least learn new skills. 

After all, automation is shaking up the retail industry much as it upended manufacturing. Automated warehouse technology is already here and self-driving trucks are a not-so-distant possibility. Cashier-less checkout and self-order kiosks are going to change what exactly a retail job is, and how many of them there are. Politicians asking for our votes should have ideas for how this industry can thrive and transform while making sure workers don’t get left behind. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

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