HOUSTON — In late March, I was suddenly laid off from my job at Sephora, where I’d worked part time for almost two years. The announcement came out of nowhere.
A couple of days before, the company said it would take care of us during the coronavirus crisis, and I believed it. Our stores shut down, but the company started Sephora at Home and asked us to watch videos on new brands so we’d be ready to help people shop online. When corporate announced on a conference call that thousands of part time and seasonal workers were unemployed, it felt like we were cattle led to slaughter.
I liked working at Sephora. I’ve been writing blog posts about fashion and makeup for years, and I love interacting with customers. I liked how our managers would check in with us about our goals for advancing in the company, and that people in school could get help with college tuition.
I never really questioned the things that felt unfair in my job. I thought if I worked hard and was flexible, eventually I’d get to full time and better wages. Now I realize I was just drinking the corporate Kool-Aid.
There are so many part-time workers in retailing, and we’ve always had second-class status, with more unstable schedules and no benefits. Like a third of the hourly workers in the service sector, I was stuck with part-time work even though I wanted more hours.
The kinds of people who are most likely to be underemployed are Latinas, people paid hourly, people with variable work schedules, people working in sales and retailing and people with low household incomes — all of which describe me. And those of us stuck in part-time jobs are paid 30 percent less per hour than full-timers doing the same thing. That means we face a double penalty: not enough hours, and lower pay for each hour we do work. No wonder I had zero savings when I lost my job.
The times and lengths of my shifts changed all the time, and sometimes we got our schedules only two days before the week started. I needed as many hours as I could get, so I would always pick up shifts if my co-workers were unavailable. Sometimes I’d work close to 40 hours, but then I’d be cut back, because the manager would get in trouble with corporate if I got too close to full time.
During my time at Sephora, I had several conversations with my manager about how I could get promoted to full time, and I was told it would happen. But now I think I was just being promised something I was never going to get. I was hired as a cashier, and my manager told me that I was “99 percent ready” to be a lead cashier, but then she hired someone else.
I worked pretty often in “color matching,” which is helping customers select the right shades of makeup for their skin tone. I was earning $13 an hour, my cashier rate, even when I worked in color matching. I believe my full time co-workers with that job make $15 or $16 per hour, but I’m not sure because the company discouraged us from talking about our wages. One day I got so frustrated I started crying, because I was doing all the work without the benefits that color consultants get, like training and free products.
And even though I was putting my personal life on hold to come in whenever I was called, that flexibility flowed in only one direction. Once, my car tire blew out and my manager made me feel terrible about calling out, even though I had no way to get to work. Since I had no health benefits or paid time off, I worked when I was unwell. I earned too much money for Medicaid. I have a thyroid condition, which causes a lot of fatigue. And I have really irregular menstruation but haven’t been able to see an obstetrician-gynecologist. When things got really bad, I’d go to the emergency room and ask the hospital to bill me later.
During the holiday season, I picked up a seasonal job at Target to help make ends meet. But it didn’t help much. Without consistent hours, it’s hard to maintain two jobs. Target wasn’t willing to schedule me around my hours at Sephora, and Sephora gave me a hard time for limiting my availability.
Then the Target job ended, and Sephora was really slow starting in January. Some weeks I was scheduled for just one shift. I would beg my bosses to call me if anyone called out. By the time the coronavirus hit, I was behind on my bills and afraid my car would get repossessed.
Sephora offered us one week of severance, but because my hours had been limited, it was only $278. And when I read the fine print, it seemed the money was offered to buy our silence. If I signed it, I couldn’t say anything about how Sephora treated me and other part-time workers, and that didn’t sit right with me. So I didn’t.
I have been on the phone with every company I owe money to, trying to get some extensions and payment plans. I now have SNAP benefits, but I’ve been calling the unemployment office for more than a month and can’t get through. I wake up at 7 each morning and call all day. It feels like a job I’m not getting paid for. When I try to apply online, I hit problems. Texas allows employers to submit unemployment claims on behalf of all their laid-off workers, and it would be nice if Sephora handled that for us.
I deserve more than a part-time job where I scramble with unpredictable hours and get tossed aside with no warning. I don’t know what the economy will look like when the pandemic is over, but I know we can’t go back to the way things were.