I got a second job a couple of weeks ago. I now work part-time at Babies R Us and part-time at Target. The Target job is seasonal, working nights, 3-4 nights per week. I have worked retail for the past 3 years and have found it a very mixed bag of biscuits. For some reason, people who work in retail, stay there. I’m not sure why, but they seem to. Maybe they like helping people or the adrenaline rush of the game… trying to push up store sales. The fast pace can be both draining and exhilarating at the same time. While there is a down side to retail:
Companies who treat their employees as if people were commodities.
A constantly shifting weekly schedule.
Constantly being pushed by corporate execs to always squeeze a little more juice out of the orange…more….More…MORE…
A schedule where you are pushed to wrap your life around your job.
There are nice times as well:
The feeling of being on a team in your store.
The gratitude of a customer when you have helped them solve a problem.
Getting to see the new stuff first!
There are more of both good stuff and not so good stuff, but you get my point. Barbara Ehrenreich, a journalist/author and social activist, wrote about the difficulty of living in America while working in low-income, service economy jobs in her book: Nickle and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. She paints a very familiar picture of people not making enough money from one job to live on a financial even keel, let alone make headway. The answer becomes more jobs and the complexity of juggling schedules with competing companies as well as, in some companies, an animosity between management and employees. In my case, the management staff at Babies R Us, have been great to work with. They are under just as much pressure to perform, even when the corporate offices put significant obstacles in the way, and then hold them accountable for low sales numbers and lowering customer satisfaction scores. The problem is, partly, the first place corporations seem to make cuts is in the hours of their employees. Yet, these same corporations have created an environment preaching that an increase in employees means an increase in sales, due to selling customers other items they may need, but not know they need, or by selling a product which is better… and more expensive. One complaint by customers is that the shelves are empty, yet the hours are cut from the employees who unload the trucks and stock the shelves. It can become a downward cycle.
Last spring, I was “down-sized” from full-time to part-time, with a loss of health benefits. Sales have been down, so finding another job has been difficult and my hours have gone lower… and lower… and lower… Until November. Many retailers this year, cut staff hours during the early fall in order to save the wage dollars to spend during the holiday rush. To me, that’s like cutting your finger nails off at the first knuckle. Your own staff can’t work enough hours to buy their own families holiday gifts because they aren’t getting enough hours, so the retailer’s are losing money their own employees would spend during the holidays. People working retail may either be supplementing their income earned in a primary career, or students, or senior adults supplementing retirement income, or people hoping for a career in the field. All of those people walk a very tight rope, financially. Therefore, the holiday season becomes an incrediby hectic time with tired people serving tired people. Holiday retail can be an all-consuming, tiring and frustrating place to try and make a living. And it all begins on Black Friday… the day after Thanksgiving… the busiest shopping day of the year. Retailers explode into a frenzy of competition for sales dollars by openning earlier; I’ve heard reports of as early as midnight and 4am is common. Special sales on popular items meant to lure customers into the store so they can see each retailer’s own particular brands and styles. Sometimes, people get caught in the crossfire. Schedules that take employees away from their family due to financial necessity. Tired and frustrated customers who take their frustrations out on store employees not responsible for either the company policy or the short-sightedness of the customer.
And… the church sits back and clucks their tongues on Sundays at the utter foolishness of materialism run amok… yet either fights to be first in line as the store opens or takes their money out of the system to do good in other world areas. In both cases, the retail employee can be the loser. Religious people can be the angriest, black/white legalist, always right customer taking their own frustration out on the employee with very little responsibility or power other than to wish them a clenched-teeth, “Have a nice day… and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!” But Christians taking their money out of the system can also cost jobs to the lowest paid retail employees. If the retailers I work for don’t have good holiday sales… I’m a seasonal employee at Target, hoping to get on in some form of permanent position in January. And that depends on how I work, but also on holiday sales. At Babies R Us, if the company doesn’t do well, hours will be drastically cut after the first of the year. So…. I have to make hay for the next month and a half, as do my retail brothers and sisters.
So…. I had a thought the other day….
What if churches brought in meals to retailer employees on Black Friday?
What if they brought in breakfast, lunch, and dinner…. served the meal, and stuck around the breakroom to meet the employees and make friends?
What if churches decided to fund both water treatment programs in Africa and bought gifts for each other, too?
What if church-run day cares actually lengthened hours and developed scholarships specifically for retail working parents?
It is sometimes easy to overlook the needs of other people standing right in front of you. Maybe there are reasons for the attitude of the cashier servicing the long line you’ve been standing in and who will continue to service the long line behind you. How can Christians become Christ standing in line? Maybe the “least of these” carried the tray of pancakes you had this morning at IHOP. Maybe they cleaned your house? Maybe they sold you the caffeine fix you needed to start this morning?
Can you hear between the lines of, “Thank you for shopping at Kmart”?
Do you see the lines of weariness on the face of your server at Olive Garden?
Do you see the long line of people coming out of Target in the morning when you are entering, and know they have been there all night putting stuff on the shelves for you to buy?
One of my facebook friends, Tim Keel, a marvelous preacher and christian thinker/communicator, posted the following status the other day:
Just read the following: “The poor tell us who we are. The prophets tell us who we can be. So we hide the poor and kill the prophets.” – Philip Berrigan. Wow.
It has been said that if you want to hide something, hide it in plain sight. And that is true. The “least of these” are hidden in plain view. The poor are hidden in plain view.
May God help us to view the plain…