What a Retail Worker Can Tell Us About the ‘Great Vacation’ Myth

Recently, Noah Smith attacked the fallacy of the ‘Great Vacation’–the idea that current unemployment has more to do with workers’ unwillingness to work than it does employers’ willingness to hire (no, I’m not making this up). In that spirit, we bring you this post by a retail worker who is worried about losing his job post-Christmas shopping season (boldface mine):

Well, January is just around the corner. For many, it’s a time of reflection and singing “Auld Lang Syne”, while looking ahead to a new year with curiosity, potential, and perhaps trepidation.

In my facility it evokes a different emotion.

Utter fear.

You see, January is when retail unceremoniously lays off all of the seasonal staff. They are known for also dismissing some of the regular staff “while they’re at it”, and we’re all nervous.

If we’re not officially laid off, some of us are “zeroed out”. Two of my coworkers appear to have been zeroed already. To be zeroed means that you’re still classified as an employee, but that The Schedulers have decided to give you zero hours of work for the coming week. It’s not on-call or anything like that. It simply means that you’re given no hours to work. I suspect, but cannot prove, that Senior Management and The Schedulers seem to hope that if they zero people out, then people will just quit on their own and the facility doesn’t have to pay extra for unemployment insurance because of them….

There are more zeros to come, I’m sure. But so far, I’m lucky. I still have work.

So, the people who are zeroed are earning…zero dollars this week. I’m not zeroed. I have two shifts.

At minimum wage. So let’s do the math. At minimum wage after FICA and taxes, people at my facility and my approximate pay grade seem to average a take-home pay of $6.75 an hour. Let’s multiply that by two shifts.


These workers are worried about losing a minimum wage job. Doesn’t sound like ‘Great Vacation’ territory to me. And when it’s harder to get a job at McDonald’s than it is to get into Harvard, that also doesn’t sound like a ‘Great Vacation’ mindset (GET TO WORK CHATTEL!).

For 2012, I think any economist who wants to argue against labor should give up tenure. Have some skin in the game (all that incentive stuff). It’s also pretty clear that Casey Mulligan, like David Brooks, would have been on the wrong side of history. Because this is the reality so many workers face:

She works here because Famous Overpriced Coffee offers health insurance.

The manager is here because she was between jobs, as they say when they are in no mood to talk about how they lost their last job. Friday’s her last day here though. She has a new job, which she took just because the company offers halfway decent health care.

She tells the inquisitive customer, “I don’t care what they have me doing. They can ask me to do anything and I’ll do it, for that.”

In case you were wondering why Republicans hate the idea of public health care even though the system we have costs businesses pots and pots of money they’d rather spend on other things—desperate, frightened, and therefore obedient and compliant employees.

Maybe it is theology after all…

And to cheer up a dreary post, here’s a related video:

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2 Responses to What a Retail Worker Can Tell Us About the ‘Great Vacation’ Myth

  1. Cathy W says:

    Is it terrible that I read the link for McDonald’s getting 1 million people applying for 62,000 jobs (which I recall being more than they’d originally intended to hire, but even they were surprised by the number of applicants) and imagine “Great Vacation” theorists taking that as proof that they’re right? After all, where were the other 13 million unemployed? Clearly they don’t want to work if they can’t be bothered to show up for a career fair.

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