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NYC’s Retail Jobs Shrank 11% Since Start of Pandemic, Threatening Young Workers of Color

New York City’s retail job market is shrinking, even as more retail jobs are being created nationwide and as the city’s overall economy has almost entirely recovered from the pandemic.

The city’s retail industry lost 37,800 jobs — an 11% decline — from February 2020 to 2023, according to a new report from the Center for an Urban Future, or CUF, a local policy think tank. Nationwide, retail jobs rose by 0.7%.

The stark losses are contributing to the widening gap in unemployment rates between Black and white New Yorkers.

The analysis found that the city’s retail industry lost 37,800 jobs—an 11% decline—from February 2020 to 2023. Nationwide, retail jobs rose by 0.7%.

Retail even lags behind the city’s other “face-to-face” industries that were hit hard by the pandemic, like food service and hotels. The city’s restaurant jobs shrunk by 5.7%, half as much as the city’s retail jobs.

The city lost 1,000 retail chain store locations in 2020, and though more have opened in recent years, the total number still hasn’t reached pre-pandemic levels, the CUF found. Duane Reade, for example, shuttered 64 stores in the city in 2020, and another 22 last year.

Jonathan Bowles, the CUF’s executive director and the report’s co-author, said the trend is likely to continue because of the e-commerce boom and automation.

“It worries me that this important sector may not get back to the level that it was prior to the pandemic,” Bowles said.

The contraction threatens an important source of jobs for the industry’s predominantly non-white workforce. The report called upon elected officials in the city and state to help these workers find other well-paying jobs in the local economy.

“These jobs are important for many New Yorkers that are not able to access the higher-wage jobs that are actually growing right now in the city’s economy,” Bowles said.

A foothold for young workers of color

New York City’s growing Black-white unemployment gap is now the largest it’s been in this century, according to a recent report from the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs. In the first quarter of this year, 1.3% of non-Latino white workers were unemployed, compared to 12.2% of non-Latino Black workers.

Retail jobs have typically offered a widely accessible foothold for young people entering the labor market, Bowles said. Most don’t require college degrees, a credential many non-white New Yorkers don’t have.

Just 22% of Latino, 28% of Black, and 45% of Asian New Yorkers hold a bachelor’s degree, compared to 62% of white residents, according to a 2021 CUF analysis of census data.

According to the CUF’s newest report, 1 in 5 retail workers in the city is younger than 25, and 70% are Black, Latino or Asian. An even greater share live in the outer boroughs.

“It really helps create a diverse and inclusive economy in New York,” Bowles said.

While New York City’s retail job market grew steadily in the two decades prior to 2015, the technological changes driving its decline in recent years predate the pandemic, Bowles said.

Online retailers continue to boom and compete with brick-and-mortar stores. Automation, including a growing reliance on self-checkout machines, has reduced the average number of employees per business, the report said.

“The fact that those [retail] jobs are not coming back does increase the imperative that the city recognize that and respond in kind,” said James Parrott, director of economic and fiscal policies at the New School’s Center for New York City Affairs.

The need to retrain workers

As retail contracts, more jobs are now available in other industries, like finance and health care. Though tech jobs in particular have been a major growth engine, they generally require advanced degrees or specialized skills — and employ a far smaller share of Black and Latino workers.

Mayor Eric Adams has launched a Future of Workers Task Force and the “New” New York plan in an effort to revive business districts and help create a more equitable economic recovery from the pandemic. But the task force has yet to release its final report.

Parrott said the city needs to better recognize how COVID-19’s impact on the labor market, identify which workers were most affected, and help them get better education, training and ultimately jobs.

“The city, as we’ve seen, has been very slow to respond and to recognize that,” he said.

Bowles said local policymakers should do more to support job training and post-secondary education, such as subsidies to attend community colleges, coding courses and programs that help close the racial disparities in community college completion.

“In this economy, we need to be doing better. We need to be putting more New Yorkers on the path to a college credential,” Bowles said. “We need to be investing in making sure that those New Yorkers are not just getting access to CUNY and other institutions of higher education, but getting the tools to succeed to be able to stay in school.”

Source : Gothamist