Episode 5: Blue-Collar Blues Discrimination
Veteran retail worker J., a mom of three and caretaker to her elderly dad, shares her experience battling negative stereotypes in the workplace. This episode also explores how discrimination often locks Black women out of opportunities for advancement, such as promotions and pay raises, contributing to the gender pay gap and adversely impacting the families that Black women often lead alone, with little or no financial support from a spouse or partner.
In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine. Contact the show at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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CHANDRA THOMAS WHITFIELD, HOST: Welcome to In The Gap, a podcast about how and why Black women aren’t getting their green. I’m your host, journalist Chandra Thomas Whitfield.
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WHITFIELD: Today we delve into how many Black women say they feel racism, gender discrimination, and long standing negative stereotypes keep them from promotions and fair pay in the workplace which contributes to the ever widening gender pay gap.
J: You don’t get that promotion. You can’t advance like you should even though you are qualified. You have all of the brains. You have all of everything, the tools, anything.
WHITFIELD: That’s our guest today. A Walmart worker and single mother of three who has spent the past 16 years in retail working for some of the nation’s top store chains including Walgreens and Target. She also does hair on the side to make ends meet. We are concealing her identity so that she may speak freely without concerns of retaliation or jeopardizing future employment opportunities. She, like many Black women, says she often feels underappreciated, overlooked for advancement opportunities and yes, chronically underpaid. Research has shown that promotions, which she says she has repeatedly sought in her career, is the fastest way for low-wage retail workers to receive sizable pay increases. But many say those opportunities are often few and far between for Black women. For example, a 2015 retail industry study by think tank Demos found that Black and Latino workers are often relegated to the lowest paid positions and rarely are considered for supervisory roles. Studies have also confirmed that many low-wage workers also feel the least empowered to bargain for better pay and promotions. And that employers treat them as if they’re disposable, like there’s always someone else willing to take their job. Our guest can relate. She says at her last job, she was passed over for a supervisor position and watched as it was offered to a new white male co-worker she had just trained. She joins us now to share her story.
WHITFIELD: Welcome to In The Gap J. Thanks for joining us.
WHITFIELD: (laughter) You seem a little nervous, but you know, just look at it this way. We’re having a great conversation. We’re just gonna have a conversation about something that’s really important.
WHITFIELD: So I just have to start with this story. I want to get into your background, but I really want to hear this story. So bring us back to what happened. Where were you working? And bring us back to that moment where you overheard this conversation going on.
J: So, I was at Target working full time.
WHITFIELD: And what were you doing?
J: I was in the shipping to store or the shipping department where you package everything. You have other co-workers who go out on the floor and they pick the items. So, it’s kind of like online shopping. We pick everything that every person has ordered online. Then there’s the one’s like you who will come in the store and pick it up or me the one that packages it and sends it out. And then you get it in the mail. So I am there for almost close to a year. I know all the steps, what you’re supposed to do, the times we’re supposed to have all these packages done, when the pallets were supposed to be wrapped, put at the receiving door, everything. It got to the point where I was the only person in the back packaging because I was fast, got it done, it was on time.
WHITFIELD: So they knew they could count on you.
J: Yea and if I called in or say my dad got sick and I stayed home. At this particular time my mom had cancer. So say my mom had an episode, that’s what we called it, and I called in. And everyone was like don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t leave. We can’t afford you not being there. And I’m like “well, my mom’s first.” So I called off. But I am now assigned, basically get over it, come into work. And I’m like “Hold on, this is my mom, this is not just a friend.” Well, one of the manager’s friends died and she wanted the whole store to stop doing everything that they were doing.
WHITFIELD: Over her loss.
J: Over her friend. Over her loss. A friend, not a mother, a father or family—a friend. It was just come in, work.
WHITFIELD: And this goes back to, you know, what we just said. The undervalued. Like I don’t necessarily value your experience, your tragedy that you just experienced.
J: I am packaging. I’m packaging everything. [A] part-time male guy that worked with me
WHITFIELD: And this was a white guy?
J: White guy. Older than I am, but had no sense of how to do anything. I trained him. When they hired him, they said “Will you come and train him? Show him how to wrap the pallets. Show him how to pull the pallets down. Show him how to pack these boxes. Show him how to scan the carts. Show him how to pick.” So I’m showing him, because I’m taking it as you’re not a co-worker, you don’t know what you’re doing, I do. I did it. As I am packaging, he was like an assistant, I’ll call him a team lead. But he was a manager, he was managing that little department. So the team lead gets the information from the store manager and actual department managers that there is a position being basically a team lead. More pay. Full-time hours. Everything. I felt I was qualified for it. I had 11 years, by then maybe 13 years of retail. Plus everything you were supposed to be knowing there. So he comes to the back, like I said I’m packaging, not paying none of them any attention really, just doing my job. He pulls the part-time guy to the side. From the end of the conveyor belt, he pulls him all the way over to where I'm standing. And thinking “Oh she’s working. She’s not paying any attention, but I’m going to speak loud enough where she can hear, but quiet enough where she might not hear everything.”
WHITFIELD: So what did he say?
J: He tells this co-worker “There’s a position for a team lead. You will be making more money and you do what you’re doing right now. You’ll pull the pallets down. You’ll come in. You’ll delegate the work for everybody. You’ll keep the inventory.” Everything that I had already been doing.
WHITFIELD: So this guy is approached and they tell him about this opportunity. What was his reaction?
J: He looked at me. He didn’t even answer. He just looked at me like “Are you serious?” Then he looked back at the team lead. The team lead is smiling like “Yeah we’re offering you this position.” Then he looks back at me and he’s like “Why would you offer me something and I’m part-time. I don’t even want to be here. I have another job. I’m just doing this just to do it. Here’s a woman right here. You guys all know she’s a single mother.”
WHITFIELD: And how many children do you have?
J: Three. “She’s a single mother. She’s here full-time. She knows everything. Why are you asking me?” So I turn around and looked at him like “I know you didn’t.”
WHITFIELD: And this is to the team lead?
J: Yeah. I said “I know you didn’t” and his whole facial expression changed. It went from that smile to a surprised like “Uh she heard me.” Then the co-worker told him “No, I’m going to have to pass on that.” And he said “because she trained me and you’re asking me to take the position of something that she does everyday.”
WHITFIELD: Wow. So he stood up? He actually was acknowledging you.
J: And the shift lead or team lead or whatever you want to call him, he tried to clean it up. And he was like “Oh no no no. I was trying to tell everyone.” I looked at him and I said “You wasn’t telling everyone. You walked down there and you pulled him all the way over here to talk to him in front of me, but not in front of me”
WHITFIELD: Yea so he didn’t go through the trouble of trying to hide it but at the same time you were in earshot where you could have heard anything he said.
J: About five, maybe 10 minutes later, the actual department manager of the back room comes over. He kind of hears me and the shift lead talking and he asks the shift lead “You really did that?”
WHITFIELD: What did he say?
J: “Well no. Everyone’s trying to take it the wrong way. I didn’t mean it like that.” And he was like, “I would take it that way.” But all of these people that I am talking about have now quit working at Target. They all put in their two weeks, left.
WHITFIELD: Shortly after this incident?
J: Shortly after.
WHITFIELD: Do you think that someone pressured them or do you think they just felt. . .
J: No. I know the department manager, he had already said how he didn’t like how the management treated minorities. And he said he had been there for, we’ll say, 10-plus years. I don’t know exactly.
WHITFIELD: So he had a lot of time to figure that out. So at the moment when this offer was made in front of you, what was going through your mind? How were you feeling at that time?
J: To be honest, I said “I’m done.” And that’s when I made the decision to go back to Walmart. I put in my application. I had put my application in earlier before I went to Target. Target just happened to call me back before Walmart did. So I called Walmart and I pressured them. “Pull my application. Pull my application. I have worked there before. I was a manager there. Imma give y’all less than 24 hours and Imma keep bugging you until you give me my interview.” And that’s basically how I’m back at Walmart.
WHITFIELD: So let’s back up a little bit. You started your retail career at Walgreens and tell us a little bit about that experience as far as pay and what happened there.
J: Walgreens. That hurt my feeling because I had put a whole lot of my life into that store.
WHITFIELD: How long?
J: 11 years.
WHITFIELD: Wow. 11 years?
J: 11 years. I started off as a cashier and three months from then I became the head of the cosmetics department. We’ll say about six months to maybe a year or less, I became an assistant manager. Still the head of the cosmetics department. So for example, if a manager needed help, they came and got me.
WHITFIELD: So again, you are this person at these jobs who you know, you’re dependable, you’re competent, you’re bringing in organization and leadership skills. And what about the pay at Walgreens?
J: Now, I can say I was very gullible. I thought I was making decent money until I left Walgreens and I went to Walmart.
WHITFIELD: So what were you being offered at Walgreens?
J: I was at $11.25.
WHITFIELD: At any point did you ask them for a raise?
J: They would give it to you, it was based off your reviews. So even though my reviews were great, I got maybe a five cent raise, 25 cent raise. Stuff like that.
WHITFIELD: So you were getting raises, but they were just a quarter or five or ten cents or something like that? So when you left Walgreens, you were at what pay about?
J: We’ll just say $12.
WHITFIELD: Okay, so over the course of 11 years you went from $11.25 to
J: Maybe $12, $13 maybe. Because when I got to Walmart, as a manager I was at $17.50. That was my starting pay.
WHITFIELD: That was a big raise from $13.
J: It scared me to be honest. Like “Are you sure?” And they were like “Yeah.” And I didn’t want to ask anymore questions because if I warn them they’re going to think “Wait a minute?” I went home, looked at the paperwork again like “Yeah this is right.” And then I got real upset at Walgreens because I was like “Dang I put my whole life in and wasn’t getting paid nothing.”
WHITFIELD: So until you got offered the $17 plus, that’s when you realized that Walgreens had been underpaying you all those years. So you went to Walgreens and now you have gone to Walmart. How long were you there that first time?
J: I was there a couple months because then my mother was diagnosed with cancer. So I quit working and went home to help my dad take care of my mom. Once I got her good, walking, everything was straight, I went back to school, got my license for hair. I was like “Hair, this is a hobby. This is a passion that I love to do”
WHITFIELD: Doing hair?
J: Doing hair. After I got that and made sure everything was okay with mom, she was right. She was like “okay” and I’m like “I’m about to go back to work.” And that’s when I put in the applications for Walmart, Target, Payless. I just put in applications because I had so much retail [experience]. Target was the first to reply and I went to working at Target and was there for almost a year until what happened.
WHITFIELD: What was the general experience? For you? Did you work with other Black women? Did they all have similar experiences?
J: We did, but I understood my other Black women, how they were being treated. They had been there for so long it was like they were just numb to it. It was just like “here just let it go. We don’t want no problems. We don’t want to argue. Just let it go.”
WHITFIELD: Now what would they tell you? Since they had been there for a long time what were kind of the things they told you of their experiences there?
J: They would tell me and it was kind of like I was the spokesperson.
WHITFIELD: So they would kind of like set you up to be the one to...
J: To fire back because they had been taking it for so long. They didn’t know how to fire back.
WHITFIELD: And why do you think they stayed there? Do you think it was just that they needed a job?
J: They need that money. They have families. We have families. Not a lot of us have a second income. Like Walmart and my hair is my second income just to make sure I stay above water. You can’t snatch somebody’s pay like that. So to not argue and to be able to keep your time, you don’t say nothing.
WHITFIELD: So when you look back at this issue of Black women not getting compensated as much as, quite frankly, white men, white women, what do you think that’s about?
J: I want to say it’s about racism. Growing up, being raised the way I’ve been raised, you see it. It’s still racism, it’s just quiet.
WHITFIELD: Just a little more indirect or understated but you feel like the root issue is racism?
J: It’s still there.
WHITFIELD: And when you say racism, what do you think it is? Just not wanting certain people to advance or feeling like you’re superior?
J: It’s the color of your skin. That’s where you don’t get that promotion. You can’t advance like you should. Even though you are qualified. You have all of the brains. You have all of everything, the tools, anything.
WHITFIELD: Now how do you feel this affects your family? At the moment you are the breadwinner as we mentioned in the intro and how does this affect you when you feel that you’re not getting compensated properly?
J: I didn’t
WHITFIELD: You thought “This is the job. This is what it pays.”
J: This is what I’m gone do
WHITFIELD: “This is what I’m doing.” And maybe didn’t realize that someone else was having a different experience with more money.
J: Right. Right. Exactly. Now, it’s been addressed. “You want me to do this, well you’re going to do this for me too.” If my son has a basketball game, I’m going to be there for my son. I don’t care that this woman has PTO time and she wants to take off.
WHITFIELD: So you feel like you now advocate for yourself. So what you want, like time with your family and things like that.
J: I’ve heard other managers “Well you work for Walmart.” Oh no, see that’s where you got it twisted honey. “You work for Walmart” and using those works that doesn’t sit well with me. I’m working for my family. I’m working for my father. I’m working for myself. I’m not working for you. Because just like my title, your title can get snatched too. So don’t threaten me with “You work for Walmart” or “You work for Target” or “You work for Walgreens.” No. You do. I’m working for my family and just like any other corporation or any other place I can get a job there too. And they’re going to hear this time “Look I have all of these qualifications, I’m not going to downgrade myself just for you to look at me.” Because on a piece of white paper, I’m just as white as anybody else. Until you see me and then when you see me that’s when “Okay we’re going to take $2 away or we’ll give her a five cent raise.” Because in that racism bracket, it labels us Black women as mad Black women when we speak up. “Oh she has an attitude.” “Oh she’s mean or she’s going to tear up something. ” No.
WHITFIELD: So what’s the solution to this?
J: Don’t get quiet. Don’t be a quiet person. Speak up. If you honestly feel it in your gut and you know it’s wrong, say something. You don’t have to be loud. You don’t have to come aggressive. You just say it.
WHITFIELD: Wow. We just thank you so much for having the courage to tell your story and speaking your truth. It seems like at the end of the day that’s what you’re saying. Speak your truth. Speak up and speak your truth.
J: It’s hard. It’s hard.
WHITFIELD: We should note that we contacted Target for a response to J’s story. A Target spokeswoman said that without identifying details about the incident or the store, which we have withheld to protect J’s anonymity, Target could not comment on the specifics of the case. The statement read “We are deeply disappointed to hear these claims from a former team member and we’re sorry to hear how she explains her experience at our company, as it’s contrary to the culture we strive for everyday at Target.” She also said the company has a long-standing commitment to building diverse teams and a “policy prohibiting discrimination in any form with extensive policies, procedures and training in place.”
WHITFIELD: Our show today was reported and produced by me, Chandra Thomas Whitfield, and edited by Tim Jones and House of Pod. You’re listening to Convoy Lines by Blue Dot Sessions. In The Gap was created with the support of the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting and In These Times magazine, which has been covering issues of equity and social justice since 1976. To learn more about In The Gap and the pay gap for Black women, go to www.inthesetimes.com/inthegap.