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The Disturbing Reality About Being a Low-Wage Retail Worker

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When recruiting new employees, many retailers portray themselves as being willing to work around workers' personal schedules. But the promises of flexibility often quickly fade.

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When Saavedra realized that she wouldn't be getting paid for the days the store was closed, "I started looking for [ways] to help myself," she says. That included using paid time off that she had accrued during the six months she had worked for the company, though it added up to only 7½ hours.

She also reached out to the Retail Action Project, a Manhattan-based organization that advocates for low-wage workers, where Saavedra discovered that she was eligible to apply for unemployment benefits, as were many workers affected by Hurricane Sandy. She's still awaiting word from the state about her claim.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced soon after the storm that workers affected by Hurricane Sandy, including the self-employed, would be eligible for disaster unemployment benefits (the deadline to apply for which has been extended to Feb. 4). Eligible recipients can receive up to 26 weeks of benefits, but a bill sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) would extend eligibility to 39 weeks for Sandy's victims.

In it first report after Hurricane Sandy struck, the U.S. Department of Labor reported that initial claims for jobless benefits jumped by 78,000, though the agency's most recent report, released Thursday, showed the number of new claims had returned to pre-Sandy levels for a second week in a row.

November's employment report, released Friday, showed that Sandy had little effect on nation's employment picture. The economy added 146,000 jobs -- including 53,000 retail positions -- and the unemployment rate rate dropped to 7.7 percent, down from 7.9 percent in October. Estimates compiled by Bloomberg had forecast that the economy would add just 80,000 jobs.

Saavedra was struck by her employer's lack of compassion and flexibility, given the challenges she was facing, she says. Her predicament was hardly unique -- millions of residents on the East Coast were affected by the devastation that Hurricane Sandy wrought on both lives and personal property.

Frustrated, she complained directly to her company's human-resource department, explaining her situation -- as well as those of her co-workers who hadn't been paid enough to get to work. The complaints drew an almost immediate response from the corporate office, which offered her a $100 Target (NYSE:TGT) gift card, which arrived by mail in a few days. "I think they gave me that gift card to shut me up," she says with a laugh.

Beyond the challenges that confronted her in the aftermath of Sandy, Saavedra's says that she's been frustrated by the company's overall lack of flexibility. A returning college student, Saavedra is pursuing a bachelor's degree in art therapy. She had been taking classes at New Jersey City University in Jersey City, but had to withdraw this fall because her supervisors wouldn't allow her to consistently take Wednesdays off to attend classes.

That's a common complaint among many retail workers, says Yana Walton, spokeswoman for the Retail Action Project. When recruiting new employees, many retailers portray themselves as being flexible and willing to work around workers' personal schedules. But the promises of flexibility often quickly fade once an employee starts working, she says.

Her experiences with Charlotte Russe have left Saavedra wondering if she would be better off working for a different company or in another field. "My main thing right now is school," she says. Still, it won't be easy to replace the income she now earns, which is why, Saavedra says, "I'm saving every penny that I can."
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