My plunge into poverty happened in an instant. I never saw it coming.
Then again, there was no reason to feel particularly vulnerable. Two years ago, I was a political reporter at Politico, and I spent my days covering the back-and-forth of presidential politics. I had access to the White House because of my reporting beat, and I was a regular commentator on MSNBC. My career had been on an upward trajectory for 30 years, and at age 50 I still anticipated a long career.
On June 21, 2012, I was invited to discuss race, Republican candidate Mitt Romney, and the 2012 presidential election on MSNBC. I said this:
“Romney is very, very comfortable, it seems, with people who are like him. That’s one of the reasons why he seems so stiff and awkward in town hall settings … But when he comes on ‘Fox and Friends,’ they’re like him. They’re white folks who are very much relaxed in their own company.”
The political Internet exploded. Because I’m an African American, enraged conservative bloggers branded me an anti-white racist. Others on the right, like Andrew Breitbart’s Big Media, mined my personal Twitter account and unearthed a crude Romney joke I’d carelessly retweeted a month before. The Romney campaign cried foul. In less than two weeks I was out of a job.
Five months earlier my ex-wife and I had a fight. I pleaded guilty to charges of second-degree assault, and signed a court order to stay away from her and her residence. Upon completion of six months of probation, the incident would be wiped from my record. But in the wake of the Politico scandal, Fishbowl DC obtained the court documents and published a piece, “Ex-Politico WH Correspondent Joe Williams Pleaded Guilty to Assaulting Ex-Wife.” Finding a new job went from hard to impossible: Some news outlets that had initially wanted my resume told me they’d changed their plans. Others simply dropped me without saying anything.
That’s how I found myself working a retail job at a sporting goods store—the only steady job I could find after six months of unemployment in a down economy and a news industry in upheaval. In a matter of months, I was broke, depressed, and living on food stamps. I had lost my apartment, and ended up living out of a suitcase in a guest bedroom of an extraordinarily generous family I barely knew. My cash flow consisted of coins from my piggybank and modest sums earned from odd jobs: freelance copy-editing, public relations, coordinating funerals, mowing lawns. So when Stretch, the laconic, 34-year-old manager of a chain store I’ll call Sporting Goods Inc. called to tell me I was hired, it was the best news I’d had in a long time. (I have chosen not to name the store or its employees here, because the story is intended as an illustration of what it is like to work in a low-paid retail environment, and not as an expose of a particular store or team.)
Of course, I had no idea what a modern retail job demanded. I didn’t realize the stamina that would be necessary, the extra, unpaid duties that would be tacked on, or the required disregard for one’s own self-esteem. I had landed in an alien environment obsessed with theft, where sitting down is all but forbidden, and loyalty is a one-sided proposition. For a paycheck that barely covered my expenses, I’d relinquish my privacy, making myself subject to constant searches.
"If you go outside or leave the store on your break, me or another manager have to look in your backpack and see the bottom,” Stretch explained. “And winter's coming—if you're wearing a hoodie or a big jacket, we'll just have to pat you down. It's pretty simple."
When he outlined that particular requirement, my civil-rights brain—the one that was outraged at New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s stop-and-frisk policy and wounded from being stopped by police because of my skin color—was furious.
Walk out immediately, it demanded. No job is worth it. Your forefathers died for these rights, and you’re selling them for $10 an hour.
But Abraham Lincoln, in the form of the lone $5 bill in my wallet, had the last word: You, sir, are unemployed and homeless. You cannot pay for food, goods, or services with your privacy.
I’m not sure why—perhaps out of middle-class disbelief or maybe a reporter’s curiosity—I pressed the issue. Seriously: I have to get searched? Even if I'm just going across the street for a soda, with no more than lint in my pockets? Even if you don't think I stole anything?
Stretch shrugged, nonplussed. Clearly he’d been living with this one for a while.
"Yeah, it's pretty simple. Just get me or one of the other managers to pat you down before you leave."
I hadn’t had a job in retail since the 1980s. Perhaps youthful nonchalance and the luxury of squandering my paycheck on clothes or beer had helped camouflage the indignities of minimum wage retail job, though I don’t ever recall being frisked at the door. Yet over the decades, employee bag checks have become standard operating procedure in the retail environment, although some workers have pushed back.
At that moment, however, I wasn’t one of them. I needed something—anything—that resembled a steady job. I had to get back on the ladder. That meant sucking it up and starting at the bottom rung. So I chose two new store logo T-shirts, size 2XL. “Better make ‘em roomy,” Stretch suggested. “They tend to shrink in the wash.”
* * *
Obtaining work in retail had changed a lot since the 1980s. What used to require a paper application and a schmooze with the manager has turned into an antiseptic online process where human interaction—and the potential for an employment-discrimination complaint—is kept to a minimum.
That put me at a distinct disadvantage.
In person, thanks to good genes, people often assume I’m younger than I am. On paper, however, I’m just another overeducated, middle-aged, middle-class refugee whose last retail experience dates to the Reagan administration.
Not to mention retail employers these days have their pick of applicants: the Great Recession added countless numbers of desperate workers like me to the annual labor-market influx of college students and high schoolers. According to an Economic Policy Institute report, “In 1968, 48 percent of low-wage workers had a high school degree, compared to 79 percent in 2012.” Likewise, the percentage of people in these jobs who have spent some time in college has skyrocketed, jumping from under 17 percent to more than 45 percent in the same time. All of us are in a race to the bottom of the wage pool.
Although older job candidates bring experience and skills to the table, their job applications typically blink like red warning lights to retail managers: overqualified, overpaid, and probably harder to manage than some high school or college kid. In a word: trouble.
“Think about it, Joey—that’s why there are online applications,” my sister, a veteran human-resources professional, told me. “If you apply online, and you never hear back, they don’t have to tell you why they rejected you and face a discrimination lawsuit.”
I soon realized the only way I’d have a shot in retail is if I dumbed down my job application, met directly with the person in charge before applying, and used my journalism story-telling skills to sell myself, stretching the truth past the breaking point.
It worked: I ambled into Sporting Goods Inc. on an inspiration one day, asked for an application, and then asked to see the manager. Luckily, Stretch bit on my fictional backstory—journalist-turned-community-college student, studying physical therapy in a mid-career change—and my real-life background as a lifelong athlete.
It was a perfect fit—at least in theory.
* * *
The first thing I noticed on my first day on the job is that in retail no one sits.
It didn’t matter if it was at the beginning of my shift, if the store was empty, or if my knees, back, and feet ached from hours of standing. Park your behind while on the clock, went the unspoken rule, and you might find it on a park bench scanning the want-ads for a new job.
Another quick observation: Working in retail takes more skill than just selling stuff. Besides the mindless tasks one expects—folding, stacking, sorting, fetching things for customers—I frequently had to tackle a series of housekeeping chores that Stretch never mentioned in our welcome-aboard chat. Performed during the late shift, those chores usually meant I’d have to stay well past the scheduled 9 p.m. quitting time.
Mop the floors in the bathroom, replace the toilet paper and scrub the toilets if necessary. Vacuum. Empty the garbage. Wipe down the glass front doors, every night, even if they don’t really need it. It was all part of the job, done after your shift has ended but without overtime pay.
One afternoon, upon hearing that Sporting Goods Inc.’s top managers were set to fly in from out of town for their annual review of their retail troops, Stretch went on a cleaning binge, clearing junk from the sales floor and the stockroom. When he finished, and I saw the amount of garbage waiting for me to haul to the loading dock, I felt like Hercules at the Augean stables.
There were five or so 20-gallon bags stuffed with refuse along with several piles of empty containers, cardboard boxes, and shipping wrap. Two cases of expired energy drinks. Several unwieldy stacks of outdated, five-foot-long cardboard displays.
The garbage run came after I’d already pulled my six-hour shift on the sales floor, and done some of my usual closing-shift chores. At the same time, since the other employee on duty was a petite young woman, taking out the garbage was a solo operation. Forty-five minutes later, I’d finished, sweaty and slightly winded. Stretch turned off the lights, I grabbed my things and we headed to the door. Before checking my backpack to see if I’d stolen anything, he said, “Thanks for the hustle,” and tossed me my bonus.
A pair of socks.
Granted, they were nice socks—high-tech, $25 wool athletic socks, something I might have purchased on impulse in better times. To the manager, it was a meaningful gesture; he seemed to sincerely want to reward me for going above and beyond my usual duties.
But overtime pay, or some kind of financial reward, apparently was out of the question. So he gave me socks.
* * *
There’s an ongoing debate over whether Congress should hike the federal minimum wage from roughly $7 an hour, where it’s been since 2008, to at least $10 an hour.
Proponents argue that three extra dollars an hour can lift hundreds of thousands of workers out of poverty. Opponents say a raise for hourly-wage workers would keep some businesses from hiring and force others to make layoffs to stay in the black.
As a worker who earned $10 an hour, I say: Neither argument is entirely true.
Sporting Goods Inc., I came to realize, was fine with paying me a few dollars more than the minimum wage—officially $7.25 an hour in Maryland—because it had other ways to compensate itself, including disqualifying me from overtime or paid sick days. Requiring me to play Cinderella on the closing shift also saved management the money it would have had to pay a cleaning company to maintain the store. Yet even $10 an hour—about $400 a week before taxes—can barely keep a single adult afloat in a city like Washington.
A modest studio apartment in a safe neighborhood would easily consume an entire month’s pay. Meanwhile, depending on circumstance, an annual salary of roughly $20,000 might not automatically qualify a retail worker for government assistance. One of my co-workers, a young single mother I called Flygirl, lived with her mom and commuted 40 minutes, one-way, from a far-flung suburb to make ends meet. Most of my co-workers, in their early 20s or 30s, had roommates, spouses, or second jobs. None of them seemed to be making it on their retail salaries alone.
Even though I was living rent-free in a guest bedroom, my every-other-Thursday paycheck couldn’t help me climb out of my hole, particularly after the state took half my pre-tax, $300 weekly salary for child support payments. Grateful just to have a job, I didn't think twice when I noticed Stretch sometimes cut me from the daily crew and kept my hours under 30 per week—until Mike, a longtime friend and a former union shop steward, explained.
"You're part-time," he told me. "If you work 40 hours or more, they'll have to give you benefits."
Because I live across town, meanwhile, I had an hour-long commute that cost as much as $10 a day round-trip on public transportation.
"Dude," my best friend Jamie said. "After taxes, you're making just enough to get to and from work each day."
* * *
Sporting Goods Inc.’s Employee Handbook has several entries about stealing from the company and its consequences: immediate termination, prosecution, imprisonment, and possible deportation. The threats were serious: I noticed about a half-dozen ceiling-mounted surveillance cameras spread across the store.
The cameras fed into a bank of monitors in the managers' office. The video feed was usually observed by a "loss prevention officer," formerly known as a store detective. In our case it was usually a young, tattooed brother I’ll call Flex, who was built like an NFL linebacker and dressed in hip-hop style: baggy jeans, flat-brimmed baseball cap, T-shirt.
When things were slow, which was often, Flex would stroll around the sales floor, browsing the merchandise, chatting up the sales crew. I often mused that his presence in our workplace perhaps had a secondary purpose: subtly reminding Sporting Goods Inc.’s employees that the loss prevention officer could probably chase you down and pulverize you if necessary.
But loss prevention, I soon learned, was a one-way street.
In my old salaried, white-collar life, I had the luxury of setting my own schedule, taking extra personal time if I needed it. The “flexible 40” worked because, generally speaking, my employers usually got it back when I worked through a deadline, for example, or came in on weekends to finish a project. By contrast, in the retail world, employees usually have to swipe a time card just to have lunch.
One evening, I got a stern reprimand from Fratboy, the 27-year-old duty manager when I came back 10 minutes late from my 30-minute break. It seemed I’d lapsed into flexible-forty mode and inadvertently abandoned him on the shoe floor during an unexpected evening rush.
"I know it's not a big deal," he said. "Personally, I don't care. But what kind of manager would I be if I didn't mention it to you?"
So noted, I told him, won’t happen again. Case closed.
The next day, however, when I clocked in a few minutes after the start of my 3 p.m. shift, Stretch sidled up to me near the outerwear rack, arms folded.
"Do you wear a watch?" he asked.
I thought it was a joke. Of course, I answered, waiting for the punch line.
"Well, Fratboy told me you came back late from your break last night. We can't have that."
Irritated by my tardiness, Stretch lectured me on time management, including an Orwellian principle found in retail: If you arrive on time for work, you’re already 10 minutes late. Showing up early is necessary, he said, so you can "get ready to hit the floor."
In that instant, I thought of my college football days, in full gear, psyching myself up for a game by blasting rap music into my headphones. Somehow, the metaphor didn’t translate to selling Nikes and yoga pants to suburbanites.
I later realized Stretch was invoking the principle of "wage theft"—retailers expect employees to be in position ahead of time, making their life easier, even if the employees aren’t getting paid for coming in early. There’s even a website devoted to fighting the practice.
Another loss-prevention irony: trash duty.
Under Sporting Goods Inc.’s protocol, two employees, preferably male, had to take the trash to the dumpster at closing time. One handled the trash; the other stood guard at the open loading-dock door. The refuse was tossed into a dumpster protected by both a built-in deadbolt with electronic keypad and a combination padlock.
Although the dumpster was in an access-only area with security patrols and cameras on every corner, the trash team was expected to stand watch—for thieves, it was implied, or armed intruders, or perhaps crossbow-wielding Visigoths on horseback. But as one of us carried and tossed the garbage, the other had no weapon more powerful than a shoe box.
I imagine the unstated objective was to send another subtle message about employee theft: Someone is always watching, even when you take out the trash.
Perhaps the most vivid example of Sporting Goods Inc.’s obsession with internal theft was the fate of a friendly 20-something who’d worked at the store for two years. Even the managers agreed the coworker I’ll call Ike was knowledgeable, loyal, and dependable, the sort of employee who’d check out the competition on his own time and report on what he saw. As such, he was in line to become assistant manager, a promotion that would add a few dollars to his paycheck and more responsibility to his life.
One afternoon, Ike didn’t show up for his shift. At the same time, the managers held a series of closed-door meetings away from the staff. Word spread like a virus: Ike had been fired for an unknown offense. The store managers refused to discuss it.
Rumor became fact about a month later when Ike came to retrieve some of his things. He told me that, before he got keys to the store, the personnel office at the company’s headquarters did the requisite background check and—bad news—found an old larceny charge from when he was a teenager.
“They checked and said I didn’t report it on my application. That means I lied to them,” he explained, chuckling sadly at the irony. “So basically, I got fired because I got a promotion.”
* * *
I knew I had to leave Sporting Goods Inc. when I realized I was turning into the sort-of overeager employee who is way too emotionally invested in a crappy menial job that does its best to devalue him.
Having once supervised an 80-member news division of a major metropolitan newspaper, the first weeks on my new job triggered a self-esteem meltdown. Flygirl, a supervisor half my age with a high school diploma, critiqued my shirt folding. I fruitlessly searched the shoe stockroom for the right size and style for an impatient customer. I silently prayed no one who knew me would come in during my shift.
As the learning curve flattened, however, my past life faded over the horizon and I gave up looking for an on-ramp back to journalism. Starved for approval after so much rejection, I started to take a weird, internal pride in my crappy menial job, almost against my will.
I felt a thrill when Stretch gave me a high-five for taking an online order from a customer without screwing it up. I quietly exalted when I correctly diagnosed that a customer needed stability running shoes and not the neutral ones he wanted. I congratulated myself on my work ethic when, instead of taking an unpaid sick day, I pushed through a Saturday shift despite a wicked, can’t-breathe bronchial infection.
More than once, I fantasized that if I quit—if I quit?—Stretch would dangle before me the promotion that had been destined for Ike, begging me to stay.
Reality struck one afternoon, however, when a customer I’ll call Jan came in for running shoes. Silver-haired, intelligent, and charming, Jan told me she’d recently retired from the U.S. Treasury, where she’d helped oversee the 2008 financial bailout.
As I fitted her for shoes and checked her stride, we struck up a conversation about politics, finance, and the fact that not a single Wall Street banker had ended up in jail. Then, Jan hit me with a question I hadn’t considered in the months since I hustled my way into a job I didn’t want, had to have, and had come to accept.
“So, Joe,” she asked, “What is it that you really do?”
I paused, slightly taken aback. I sell shoes, I told her. That’s my job.
“Yes, I understand,” she persisted. “But what do you really do?”
By that point, it was clear what she meant: Why are you here?
Three months earlier, I would have anticipated the question, and had some vague answer handy. At that moment, though—unable to return to my chosen profession, unwilling to start thinking of an alternative—I mumbled something about being a writer, and let the subject drop.
I wish I could say that was the moment things turned around.
In a perfect world, after talking with Jan, I would have ripped off my employee T-shirt, thrown it in Stretch’s face, and strode out of the store. In reality, it took another month or so before I got the opportunity to leave Sporting Goods Inc. for a temporary job as a communications director for a Capitol Hill nonprofit, a gig that paid twice as much per week as I’d earn in a month at the store. That salary still didn’t come close to my Politico paycheck, though it was a step in the right direction.
When I called Stretch to quit, he wasn’t happy, but he didn’t try and convince me to stay, either, as I’d hoped. He did, however, manage to deliver a dig that all but summed up my time as a retail employee.
“So, your new job,” he said, his irritation coming through the phone as he realized he needed to fill my shift for the week ahead. “They’re hiring you away from here. I guess [you] don’t care about hard work or loyalty.”
Hard work, yes; I certainly did my share working for a store that didn’t seem to value it all that much. I learned, however that loyalty is a malleable concept—and incredibly difficult to find these days, even at $10 an hour.
This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.
More From The Atlantic