Credit: Judith Spitzer.
SPOKANE, Wash. (WOMENSENEWS)–Among U.S. women working as cashiers–the lowest paying of the 20 most common female occupations–Carolynn Nielsen, 55, is a rarity.
She’s happy with her job and her employer.
Nielsen is up at 5 a.m. most days, driving 30 minutes to her job at Trader Joe’s supermarket here. She works 37 to 39 hours a week in shifts from roughly 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. She loves that on a typical workday, her shift is over by 2 to 2:30 p.m.
“I have more of my day left because you can work hours at [Trader Joe’s] that work for you,” Nielsen says.
Although she and her husband have no children, she says the shifts are very family friendly. “If you have kids you can work the hours your kids are in school.”
Even though it’s taken 20 years for Nielsen to reach her current salary, she says she loves working at Trader Joe’s because of their philosophy and policies.
“They pay enough to keep employees happy,” Nielsen says. “I get to travel and I can transfer from store to store. The health care insurance is excellent and benefits stay with employees if they transfer.”
The pay and benefits at Trader Joe’s are anything but typical, according to a 2010 CNN Money article. Store managers can make salaries in the low six figures, and full-time crew members can start in the $40,000 to $60,000 a year range.
Trader Joe’s contributes 15.4 percent of employees’ gross income to tax-deferred retirement accounts, according to industry experts, according to the same CNN article.
With an hourly wage of $20.40, Nielsen earns almost double the median hourly wage for cashiers of $10.98 in Washington, the highest paying state for cashiers. Her starting wage was $6 an hour when she signed on with the store in 1993.
Earning the Least
Cashiers earn the least of the most common female-dominated occupations, lower than the pay of maids and housekeepers, who earn $395 per week, or waitresses at $396 per week, according to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research in Washington, D.C.
In 2012, women’s median weekly earnings for all full-time workers nationwide were $691 per week.
Trader Joe’s, in contrast to most grocers, changed its policy six years ago requiring cashiers to work no more than four hours per day “at the register in two-hour increments,” Nielsen says.
Nonetheless, Nielsen still spends most of her work day on her feet; whether she’s stocking shelves, cashiering or hosting tastings. “And everyone does everything. So I’m doing something different all the time,” she says.
She also loves the autonomy she’s given to make certain decisions on her own, at the register, without management approval. “They give their workers the authority to make things right for our customers,” she says.
That hasn’t been the case at other stores where she’s worked. “It’s more fun here than at other stores, and we have fewer complaints.”
As happy as Nielsen is about wages and benefits, the work is physically hard.
“Physically I’m tired at the end of the day,” she says. “And I’m really, really tired at the end of the week. After all, it’s physical work.”
Nielsen had a bout with plantar fasciitis several years ago and had to endure painful cortisone shots in her feet. Surgery kept her off her feet for two months. Before she had the surgery she didn’t even realize how much pain she was in.
The grocery store industry’s injury and illness rate for the roughly 438,000 female grocery store cashiers was almost 14,000, or about 4.7 per 100 workers, in 2011, compared to about 3.5 per 100 workers for all industries, according to Alex Measure, an economist at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in Washington, D.C.
Strain and Sprains
Repeated traumas–which include carpal tunnel syndrome and other motion-related disorders and usually involve the hand, wrist, elbow or shoulder–accounted for a large number of the total cases of illness in the industry, Measure says, considerably higher than that for all retail trade industries. The most prevalent nature of injury or illness is strain and sprain, which accounts for a majority of grocery store cases.
Women probably face more hazards in the grocery store industry than in private industry overall because the majority of women are employed as cashiers, who tend to be on their feet most of their workday, scanning and bagging customer purchases, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nielsen says she is concerned about suffering an injury.
“I worry about a serious accident that would keep me from working,” she says. “I’ve had a few friends who have had to go out on disability due to an unforeseen accident or injury. Some of them have not been able to come back to work, or have come back and re-injured themselves.”
Nielsen and her husband Robert Nielsen, 60, who returned to college at age 40 for an engineering degree, moved to Spokane from the San Francisco Bay Area nearly two years ago. They were tired of the high cost of living, the traffic and other “urban blight.”
Her husband’s land surveying business in construction suffered tremendously from the recession that began in 2008, and the subsequent housing slump.
They were excited to hear that Spokane was set to open a Trader Joe’s store in October 2011. Nielsen didn’t waste any time applying for a transfer.
“We had visited Spokane earlier and we loved it, so we said let’s go,” Nielsen says, proudly noting it was the first time the couple moved because of her job, rather than her husband’s.
Lower Living Costs
Living costs are significantly lower in Spokane. “We have three times the house for the same amount of money,” Nielsen says. Though her husband has struggled to rebuild his land survey business. “It was a bit of a struggle but we’re starting to pull out of it.”
The couple has some credit card debt left from their move to Spokane and about $10,000 left from her husband’s student loans.
“We’re whittling away at that though,” says Nielsen, noting that her husband’s loan balance is down from $28,000.
Nielsen went through management training but decided she wanted to remain a “crew” member. “It’s much more difficult for women who are married or have kids to be managers,” she says. “They work 50-plus hours per week. They tend to be older and/or divorced or single.”
Nielsen’s best estimate is that the ratio of male to female managers is about 70-30. “It has become a much higher ratio of women to men than when I started 20 years ago, when only about 10 percent of women were managers,” she adds.
Despite her worries about injuries Nielsen seems happy with her job. She says although her husband says he’s almost ready to retire, maybe by next year, she doesn’t have any plans to do so in the foreseeable future.
“I don’t feel that old,” she says.
Judith Spitzer is an independent journalist working in the Pacific Northwest.
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