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Retail workers are essential. Here's how Arizona can make this work more attractive
Posted on July 05, 2020 • Category: Op-Ed
By Sybil Francis, opinion contributor

Arizona Central

Jason Park sanitizes a carpet at the entrance during the grand opening of H Mart on June 11, 2020, in Mesa, Ariz. (Sean Logan/The Republic)

In grocery stores, hardware stores, warehouses and other workplaces across the country, previously unheralded workers have kept us fed and equipped with necessities, often at their own risk.

More than 234,000 people work in retail in metro Phoenix making it this area’s third-largest employment sector. Retail contributes about the same to the gross state product as manufacturing, finance or health care.

Recognition of the value of front-line workers was already growing before the pandemic struck. Last fall, the influential Business Roundtable updated its mission statement, which for two decades held that its members’ primary purpose was increasing shareholder value. The new statement takes a wider view.

“Americans deserve an economy that allows each person to succeed through hard work and creativity and lead a life of meaning and dignity,” the revised statement says. “This starts with compensating (employees) fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world.”

181 CEOs committed to their workers

Significantly, the leaders of companies with an Arizona presence, including Amazon, Best Buy, CVS, Home Depot, Macy’s, Target, Walgreens and Walmart, were among the 181 CEOs who signed the statement. The Center for the Future of Arizona works with a number of them to increase economic security and career mobility for front-line retail workers.

Because retail jobs are often undervalued by employers and employees, retailers experience high employee turnover. The signatories to the Business Roundtable statement understand it does not have to be this way.

A well-trained and educated workforce can benefit companies and employees. How? Happier and supported employees are more likely to stay, which also happens to provide a better return on investment for employers.

Many of us had our first jobs in retail or food service – mine was as a waitress. I learned how to work as part of a team, communicate, relate to restaurant patrons, managers and kitchen staff, multitask and work under pressure.

If you are in retail or had your first job in retail, think about the skills you learned and how they serve you today.

The human potential that resides in our army of front-line workers is tremendous. Imagine what unleashing that potential could mean for the individuals or for the workforce if we were more intentional about recognizing and developing their skills. Imagine the difference it could make between a high-turnover job and a career path.

How do we make their promises a reality?

How do we transform words and commitments on paper into reality? How can we transform high-turnover jobs into a foundation for building a career, whether in retail or elsewhere?

  • Training and education are vital. Workers need to be trained how to do their jobs, but that’s just a start. Soft skills are even more important. Workers need access to tuition assistance programs rather than tuition reimbursement benefits to decrease the financial barrier to access programs. 
  • Businesses committed to the goals of the Business Roundtable statement can turn to a new resource created by the Aspen Institute. Its Jobs Quality Tools Library includes checklists, instructions and guidelines to help business leaders strengthen job quality. Another great resource is the MIT Sloan Good Companies, Good Jobs initiative, which provides a framework for what “good” looks like. 
  • Employers can do more to make sure workers know about available resources. People at the lower end of the pay scale often face issues with transportation or child care – a single emergency can put them into a tailspin. Yet in these stressful situations, they’re often on their own to find help so they can get to work. Many organizations offer Employee Assistance Programs as a benefit, but usage is low because of lack of knowledge about the benefit or shame in using it.

Help exists. Many workers don't know

I’ve even heard of workers afraid to call in sick out of fear they’ll lose their jobs – in a state where sick time has been required at all businesses since 2017.

That employees don’t know this is a reflection on their employers. Managers need to do a better job of making sure their workers know what help is available to them.

Indeed, it’s in their interest to do so. Starbucks offers an example. The company pays for its baristas to earn an online degree through Arizona State University, knowing that employees may not stay after earning their college degree. Offering the benefit, though, makes Starbucks an attractive place to work.

Managers have their choice of smart, ambitious people to hire, who become highly motivated employees. This is enlightened self-interest.

With unemployment rates in double digits due to COVID-19, many workforce training organizations have become overwhelmed.

Face-to-face training has largely been shut down. It will return, but Goodwill, Chicanos Por La Causa and Arizona@Work career centers haven’t missed a beat and are offering online training. Others should follow their lead.

Feds must act. But Arizona can lead

Changes at the federal and state level could also strengthen worker protections. Supporting workforce housing, building more robust safety net systems, expanding training programs and similar steps would put real meaning into the term “essential worker.”

Much of this would need to come through the federal government. But there’s no reason Arizona can’t again be a leader, as it was in requiring sick leave and raising the minimum wage.

Public attitudes about jobs and occupations are changing because of COVID-19. We learned that we cannot survive without retail workers and other essential employees.

Someone is stocking grocery shelves for us. Someone is transporting goods from warehouses to the stores where we shop. Someone is sanitizing all these facilities. Someone is helping customers find the goods they need.

This is essential work. Our actions going forward should reflect this newly appreciated reality.


Sybil Francis is president and CEO of the Center for the Future of Arizona, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that brings Arizonans together to build a stronger and brighter future for our state.