- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

NEW YORK | Interior designer J.C. Trabanco began applying for sales jobs after his Wall Street clients stopped calling last year.

“It’s humbling,” Mr. Trabanco said as he waited outside an American Apparel store in Manhattan. The 50-year-old, who said he used to earn more than $100,000 a year, only briefly considered leaving when he realized he was among the oldest people in line for a chance at a job that may pay as little as $9 an hour. “You can’t be proud,” he said.

As Macy’s Inc. eliminates 7,000 positions, Sears Holdings Corp. shuts 24 stores and furniture merchants slash payrolls by 13 percent, retail jobs are disappearing at a faster rate in this recession than in any other since the U.S. government began keeping track in 1939.

While employment declined 3.1 percent from December 2007 through February, the retail industry shrank by 3.9 percent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That difference is bigger than in any previous recession.

In the past, “Macy’s on 34th Street was always the fallback — you could always go there and work for a few weeks and make some money,” said Judy Sullivan, a supervisor for a state Department of Labor career center in New York.

U.S. payrolls contracted by 4.4 million in the recession’s first 14 months, with companies — including Blockbuster Inc., Home Depot Inc., Starbucks Corp. and Saks Inc. — shedding 608,000 jobs. Consumer spending fell in the third and fourth quarters of 2008 by 3.8 percent and 4.3 percent, respectively, only the fifth consecutive drops in 60 years.

Retail sales rose 1 percent in January, when people took advantage of post-holiday price reductions. In February, they dipped 0.1 percent, the Commerce Department reported Thursday. In December, during the worst Christmas shopping season in 40 years, retail sales plunged 9.8 percent from a year earlier, according to the Commerce Department.

“For workers who are interested in finding something quick to bridge them through this recession, it’s not easy,” said Heidi Shierholz, a labor economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

In January, when 1.79 million retail workers were unemployed, there were 395,000 openings, according to the labor statistics bureau. That meant 4.5 seekers for every position, compared with 2.1 a year ago and 2.8 in the 2001 recession. For all jobs, there were 4.5 seekers for every post, the bureau said.

“It’s usually easy for me to find a job, but not now,” said Julissa Lee, an 18-year-old biology student at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, who was fired from a Best Buy Co. store in Manhattan in January. “It’s very competitive.”

Ms. Lee waited for 30 minutes outside an Aerosoles store on Lexington Avenue in New York on Feb. 10 to interview for a sales slot. Before the doors opened at 9 a.m., the line snaked down the sidewalk and around a corner.

“We were a little surprised,” said Beth Sharp, senior vice president for human resources at closely held Aerosoles of Edison, N.J. The footwear maker drew 175 applicants for 20 positions, Ms. Sharp said.

Los Angeles-based American Apparel Inc., operator of the Manhattan store where Mr. Trabanco applied, has held weekly open-call interviews in New York since June to hire clerks for six stores it has opened since then. Teenagers eager for part-time work made up the majority of applicants in the beginning.

Now, people of all ages show up, including an 80-year-old woman, said Karen Hyun, a store manager in the city.

“Some don’t know anything about the store or retail,” Ms. Hyun said. “They just want a job.”

The median hourly wage for retail sales workers in the U.S. is $9.69, compared with $15.10 for all workers, according to the labor bureau.

In the four recessions from 1969 to 1990, retail employment either increased or declined less than total employment, according to the labor bureau. As consumer spending has grown to 71 percent of the U.S. economy from 62 percent in 1970, retail has become more vulnerable, Ms. Shierholz said.

Within the industry, furniture-store employment was reduced the most through February, the bureau said. Sporting goods and music stores cut payrolls by 7.1 percent and home-building stores by 5.4 percent.

At AllRetailJobs.com, where postings are down 10 percent from a year ago, monthly visits from job seekers jumped 25 percent to 750,000 in November and have stayed at that level since, said Don Firth, the Web site’s president.

A job loading trucks or stocking shelves used to get 50 applications and now attracts as many as 300, Mr. Firth said.

Paige Pollard, 45, found work as a saleswoman at TeNo, a jewelry store in Las Ve0gas owned by closely held Universal Watch Co. Inc., after she closed her swimming pool-cleaning business last summer.

“I’m really just thankful that I have a job right now,” said Ms. Pollard, who earns under $10 an hour. “I was forced into basically finding anything.”

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