More often than not, it’s a dirty look or some unspoken signal that a customer would rather deal with another salesperson. Every now and then, things turn outright hostile, as happened recently for Desmond Anthony, an employee at Zara in New York City.
The young retail worker was talking with a group of gay male visitors when a female customer approached and said, “You’re going to hell. I don’t want to shop here. I feel uncomfortable.” Anthony, who is also an actor, knew how to maintain his composure, but the other men followed the woman to another part of the store, where an altercation ensued, complete with a tossed shoe.
No one was injured, and management comforted the customer. “We’re sorry that this happened and we understand how you feel,” she was told.
That response did not surprise Anthony, who said the climate for LGBT people in his store could be so precarious that at least four managers opt to remain in the closet. He said the lack of an explicit nondiscrimination policy makes it difficult for management to intervene when shoppers express antigay sentiments, let alone ask those articulating such comments to leave the store. Instead, customers are always right, even when employees have been wronged.
“You do know that you are not protected if something happens, God forbid,” he said. “They have this clause in our contract that if you are not fitting the company’s image, they can get rid of you, where it basically comes down to discrimination. That’s dangerous because they don’t clarify what they mean by that, because if you are more flamboyant or if you wear makeup, it’s just not allowed.”
Research suggests that Anthony’s experience is not uncommon for nonunionized employees who make up the overwhelming majority of workers in retail, a fast-growing industry that attracts LGBT people in disproportionately high numbers. Compared to finance and law, industries that topped the Human Rights Campaign’s 2012 Corporate Equality Index, workers in retail, which ranked a decent third, routinely lack health insurance, live with low compensation, and contend with unpredictable “just-in-time” scheduling. The situation is outlined in “Discounted Jobs: How Retailers are Selling Workers Short,” a report from the Retail Action Project, a New York City-based membership organization for retail workers, many of whom identify as LGBT.
“It’s an industry that welcomes self-expression, but it’s also lower wage and so it attracts workers encountering other barriers because of sexual orientation or especially gender nonconformity,” said Carrie Gleason, executive director of RAP. “Retail is where a lot of LGBTQ workers find employment. That said, most retailers lack proper policies to deal with workplace harassment and discrimination on the sales force, and when you work retail, you’re dealing with the public, not just your managers and coworkers.”
Race, gender, and immigration status exacerbate the problems. The majority of retail workers in New York City are people of color, and nearly half are immigrants, proportions that hold for the LGBT portion of the workforce. According to the RAP report, women and people of color are overrepresented in low-wage front-line retail positions, where they find less access to benefits and fewer opportunities for raises and promotions.
Advocates hope that a groundbreaking new contract secured by the employees at Bloomingdale’s will influence the industry to make improvements. Last month, members of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union Local 3 ratified a five-year collective bargaining agreement that strengthened protections against discrimination on the basis of gender identity and expression. The agreement, which covers 2,000 employees at Bloomingdale’s flagship store in Manhattan, also includes a new paternity benefit for gay men in marriages and domestic partnerships, which union sources believe could be the first of its kind in a retail contract. Wage increases, enhanced benefits, and more employee control over scheduling are also part of the contract.
“The fact that Bloomingdale’s and RWDSU have been able to come to an agreement to extend paternity leave for same-sex couples is phenomenal,” said Gleason. “It’s unheard of in the industry and it’s a huge stride.”