Imagining A Better World: What If The Apple Store Were The Worst Job Around?  

A blog about business and economics.
June 23 2012 4:06 PM

Imagining A Better World: What If The Apple Store Were The Worst Job Around?  

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SAN FRANCISCO, CA - APRIL 24: Pedestrians are seen reflected in an iPad window display at an Apple Store on April 24, 2012 in San Francisco, California.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I've admired some of the previous reporting in The New York Times' iEconomy series, but I'm a bit baffled that it took them this many words to discover that Apple Store workers are paid a similar amount to workers at other retail stores. It's true that Apple has a much higher market capitalization than other retail firms (in no small part because it's not primarily a retail firm) but that doesn't change the fact that retail workers are participating in a competitive retail labor market. The converse of Apple Store workers not being rich despite the company's success is that Sears & K-Mart workers don't earn negative wages even though their company loses money.

The interesting finding in the piece, it seems to me, is that retail workers at integrated single-brand stores—Apple, Lululemon, Tiffany's, etc.—seem to earn a wage premium relative to what workers at multi-brand retailers like BestBuy or GameStop secure.

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But here's a different thought. A lot of people have difficulty imagining how the world we have could evolve into a much happier tomorrow. But the Apple Store is a real world example of a ruthlessly profit-seeking company employing modestly skilled workers at a wage that, while by no means luxurious, is clearly enough to greatly ameliorate our most severe social problems.

According to the Times "[a]bout 30,000 of the 43,000 Apple employees in this country work in Apple Stores, as members of the service economy, and many of them earn about $25,000 a year." More precisely, the Times says the average hourly base pay is $11.91 an hour, which if you work 40 hours a week for 50 weeks a year comes out to the slightly lower figure of $23,800 per year. That's not very much. But it's a lot more than many people make right now. Currently 15 percent of the population is living below the Federal Poverty Line including a shocking 22 percent of American children. And yet a single mom raising three kids working full time at the Apple Store at an average wage would be above the Federal Poverty Line.

That should tell us something about how dire the conditions facing poor Americans are. But, again, those are the circumstances in which 15 percent of the population and 22 percent of kids find themselves.

And yet at the Apple Store workers get "very good benefits for a retailer, including health care, 401(k) contributions and the chance to buy company stock, as well as Apple products, at a discount." So think about a world in which these kind of jobs were the absolute worst jobs around. You're thinking about a world in which everyone has health insurance, and essentially no full-time workers or children of full-time workers are living in poverty. That would hardly be a world with no problems, but it would be a tremendous achievement. And it seems to me to point to the fact that the really urgent question isn't why aren't Apple Store jobs better, but why are so many jobs worse than this? Why can't we live in that world where people who work hard and play by the rules aren't poor?

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.