The Disturbing Reality About Being A Low-Wage Retail Worker

Sandy effect retail jobs employment

It's been more than five weeks since Hurricane Sandy roared across the Eastern Seaboard, devastating the lives of thousands residents in New York, New Jersey and several other states. Many are still dealing with the fallout caused by damaged homes, destroyed possessions and lost wages.

They include New Jersey resident Adriana Saavedra, whose car was flooded, along with her Jersey City home, causing more than $5,000 in damage to furniture and other belongings. (The photo above shows just one example of the damage that occurred in that city.) The storm also forced her employer to shut its doors for five days, time during which Saavedra would have normally worked and been paid.

But she and other employees of Charlotte Russe at the Paramus Park mall weren't compensated for the days the store was closed, Saavedra says, even though they were unable to work through no fault of their own.

"That was a big shock for me," says Saavedra, 36, who has worked at the northern New Jersey store since April as a full-time assistant manager and earns $18 an hour. As a retail employee, she says, "It's not the first time that I've experienced snowstorms or hurricanes, and usually a company will pay you for the days that they weren't open."

More:Hurricane Sandy Victims Can Get Unemployment Help

sandy effect retail jobs employment

Saavedra (pictured at left) says the shutdown and her inability to get to work even after the store reopened resulted in her losing nearly $1,100 in take-home pay.

In the week after the storm, Saavedra couldn't stay in her flooded home and instead stayed with her boyfriend in Queens. But with her car damaged and public transportation running reduced schedules, Saavedra says that it wasn't possible for her to work through store closing time, typically 9 p.m. -- later on weekends.

She explained the situation to the store manager and her district manager with the hope of getting midday shifts that would allow her to get home to her boyfriend's home before the regional PATH subway system shut down for the evening at 10 p.m. That request was denied.

"I was told that the schedule was already made," she says, noting that it included one shift that required her to close the store. Unable to get to Queens, Saavedra was forced to stay in her soaked Jersey City home, which still had no water or power, so she couldn't shower. To make matters worse, she had to open the store the next day and was scheduled more closing shifts in the next week.

San Diego-based Charlotte Russe Inc. didn't return a request for comment for this story, and the manager of the Paramus store couldn't be reached.

The company's apparent decision not to pay workers during the time the Paramus store was closed caused five younger part-time staffers -- some who needed to take two buses to get to work -- to quit, Saavedra says. Having learned that they wouldn't be paid, she says, "they just didn't come back."

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There is no requirement for companies to pay workers who aren't able to work when a business is shut down due to severe weather or other disasters. In the wake of Sandy, however, some employers elected to pay their employees anyway. But, as was the case with municipal workers in New York City, some employees were required to use vacation time if they didn't show for work.

When Saavedra realized that she wouldn't be getting paid for the days the store was closed, "I started looking for [ways] to help myself," she says. That included using paid time off that she had accrued during the six months she had worked for the company, though it added up to only 7½ hours.

She also reached out to the Retail Action Project, a Manhattan-based organization that advocates for low-wage workers, where Saavedra discovered that she was eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, as were many workers affected by Hurricane Sandy. She's still awaiting word from the state about her claim.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced soon after the storm that workers affected by Hurricane Sandy, including the self-employed, would be eligible for disaster unemployment benefits (the deadline to apply for which has been extended to Feb. 4). Eligible recipients can receive up to 26 weeks of benefits, but a bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) would extend eligibility to 39 weeks for Sandy's victims.

In it first report after Hurricane Sandy struck, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that initial claims for jobless benefits jumped by 78,000, though the agency's most recent report, released Thursday, showed the number of new claims had returned to pre-Sandy levels for a second week in a row.

November's employment report, released Friday, showed that Sandy had little effect on nation's employment picture. The economy added 146,000 jobs -- including 53,000 retail positions -- and the unemployment rate rate dropped to 7.7 percent, down from 7.9 percent in October. Estimates compiled by Bloomberg had forecast that the economy would add just 80,000 jobs.

More:Are These The Worst Jobs In America?

Saavedra was struck by her employer's lack of compassion and flexibility, given the challenges she was facing, she says. Her predicament was hardly unique -- millions of residents on the East Coast were affected by the devastation that Hurricane Sandy wrought on both lives and personal property.

Frustrated, she complained directly to her company's human-resource department, explaining her situation -- as well as those of her co-workers who hadn't been paid enough to get to work. The complaints drew an almost immediate response from the corporate office, which offered her a $100 Target gift card, which arrived by mail in a few days. "I think they gave me that gift card to shut me up," she says with a laugh.

Beyond the challenges that confronted her in the aftermath of Sandy, Saavedra's says that she's been frustrated by the company's overall lack of flexibility. A returning college student, Saavedra is pursuing a bachelor's degree in art therapy. She had been taking classes at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, but had to withdraw this fall because her supervisors wouldn't allow her to consistently take Wednesdays off to attend classes.

That's a common complaint among many retail workers, says Yana Walton, spokeswoman for the Retail Action Project. When recruiting new employees, many retailers portray themselves as being flexible and willing to work around workers' personal schedules. But the promises of flexibility often quickly fade once an employee starts working, she says.

Her experiences with Charlotte Russe have left Saavedra wondering if she would be better off working for a different company or in another field. "My main thing right now is school," she says. Still, it won't be easy to replace the income she now earns, which is why, Saavedra says, "I'm saving every penny that I can."

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