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The clothing harked back to the days of the first retail workers

There should be an agreement among working-class retail store managers. When anyone over 30 is interviewing for a minimum wage seasonal position, no one should ask them why want to work there. We don’t. Most of us are only there because something went terribly wrong.

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This was the sentiment that came to mind as I trudged through a semi-busy mall. Many stores had a “HIRING SEASONAL WORKERS” sign in their window. I went into each one to ask for an application, or to be told I needed to apply online. Because the food court and benches were closed-off, I found a small enclave near an emergency door and sat on the tiles, coat protecting my pants from the dusty floor, to fill out the same information again and again until my availability seared itself into my brain.

Retail workers are unique among the working-class positions. They are still quite similar to the original shop workers in terms of class and exceptions. While servers and baristas enjoy the reputation of being artsy. One likes a snarky barista. Retail workers who veer outside the company mandated personality can expect to be punished. Individualism is not loved in retail work.

In my last retail job, I managed to snag a coveted position at a high-end department store. Our dress code was archaic and mandated that all workers had to wear black. As it had been in the 1920s, so it was in 2020. Plus if we didn’t, how would the customers be able to spot us on the floor full of brightly-patterned garments, and glowing sumptuous fabrics?

The clothing harked back to the days of the first retail workers. The shop girls and boys dressed as servants to assure the wealthy that they would receive the utmost respect they expected for their station. But the middle class too came to the department store to have other humans do their bidding and to feel pampered. They didn’t just return for shirts, they came back to boost their self-esteem. One could buy clothing anywhere, but only at shops could one enjoy the sensation of knowing they were better-off than someone else. It didn’t matter how the workers felt. Shop girls, like servants, should be useful. More importantly, they should be grateful.

Besides the clothes, I was made aware of this fact about class during training. We were shown a door where we were to always enter. It didn’t matter if we were working or just coming to the store with friends on our day off. That dimly lit hall was our passage to enter and exit as long as we were lucky enough to be employed for such an esteemed company. There would be no quick exit through the main doors on lunch break to get to Auntie Anne’s Pretzels in 2 minutes. One must exit the premises and go around, taking a precious 5–10 minutes out of our begrudgingly allowed lunch.

The servant’s (I mean employee’s) entrance was meant to act as a deterrent against theft. But its real message was clear. There is a distinct difference between you and the customer. So don’t you forget it.

Not that we didn’t know. There is a special kind of despair that minimum-wage workers experience when they are constantly stocking, arranging, and selling things they could never afford. Once, when I sold a $600 designer sweater, I thought, “That’s two weeks of wages.” Then I sunk into gloom thinking about my student loan payments and wondered how long my fraying shoes could last before I had to buy another pair.

Even less aspirational shops have challenges. You begin to feel like an unwelcome ghost when customers get angry at you following them around, casually straightening random merchandise nearby in case they need you. It was a bit of a damned if you do, damned if you don’t situation. Customers want to be able to explore freely without feeling watched, but managers ask their workers to check on people to make sure they are being helped. I was once reprimanded because the customer who’d just moments before told me she was fine, had questions when the manager went to ask her if she needed assistance.

There is no down time in retail. Stores say, “If you can lean, you can clean.” That phrase means we wipe down the same surfaces over and over again, whether they need to be wiped or not. Or You walk the same circles looking busy for the camera meant to catch shoplifters but will just as easily act as evidence in your termination due to laziness.

Service work is important in its own way. Unfortunately, people’s attitudes toward it haven’t changed since its early conception. Believe me, it does take work. It does meet a demand. Customers, like you, want us out there, serving you. Otherwise, you’d just order online.

So treat us with respect. Be kind if you ask us to do something. You have 90% of the power in this situation, and we know it. Don’t be a dick.

I don’t relish going back into retail, in a store with young people who will look at me as a template of what not to do with their lives. Yet it is a reality millions of people in the US face. The shame doesn’t come from working. It comes from how our culture devalues older retail workers just trying to make ends meet. It comes from feeling like a failure because we never escaped the mall. It comes from the creeping dread that we’ll die on the sales floor due to stress and lack of healthcare. Then our spirits will float around the empty store moaning a chilling, “Can I help you?”