The Politics of Lousy Retail Jobs

Another moment in what you might call “The Politics of Crap Retail Jobs.”
Would you like overtime with that? Photographer: Tim Boyle/Bloomberg

President Barack Obama will apparently announce tomorrow an executive order that will expand overtime eligibility for salaried workers. Right now, salaried workers who earn less than $455 a week are eligible for overtime; the administration plans to raise that level, though it's not clear by how much.

What this means for workers is hard to say, because we don't know how big the increase will be. But it's another moment in what you might call "The Politics of Crap Retail Jobs."

Those of us of a certain age probably remember our own crap retail jobs with a certain amount of fondness -- more fondness than we probably viewed them with at the time. We were young, our backs and feet didn't hurt after a long shift, and the worst that happened when our shifts ran long is that we had less time to spend on the phone with our friends.

Those jobs were not particularly convenient or pleasant, and they sure didn't pay well. But they were the best we could do, and they gave us spending money while someone else paid the mortgage.

These days, it seems that a lot more people are finding that these jobs in fast food or retail are "the best we can do"; it's no longer housewives and teenagers looking for some extra income. Meanwhile, in many ways the work has gotten worse. Employers, themselves facing brutal competition, are using software packages to help them schedule workers in ways that maximize their profitability while maximizing inconvenience to employees. Hours are kept low to ensure that workers don't qualify for overtime, much less benefits -- and because the software requires employees to make available many more hours than they actually get, they often can't even string together two part-time jobs to make a full-time income.

Meanwhile, the folks scheduling them are often people who would like to get a better job with more opportunity but can't find one. They too feel trapped in jobs that don't pay much but require too many hours for them to pick up a second shift somewhere else.

These workers may not be numerous enough to succeed in unionizing Wal-Mart. But they are numerous enough to make up a powerful political force. It's no wonder the Obama administration is focusing on issues such as the minimum wage and overtime that appeal to them. What will be surprising is if this doesn't show up in the 2016 campaign.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    (Megan McArdle writes about economics, business and public policy for Bloomberg View. Follow her on Twitter at @asymmetricinfo.)

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    Megan McArdle at

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    Brooke Sample at

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