AILSA CHANG, HOST:
The story you hear a lot about in retail is devastation from the pandemic - major chains going bankrupt, lots of people losing jobs. But lately something quite different has been happening. At the same time that retail workers are quitting at a record rate, stores are hiring on an unprecedented scale. NPR's Alina Selyukh has been tracking this and joins us now. Hey, Alina.
ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hello, hello.
CHANG: Hello. OK, so first, let's talk about the workers who are quitting. Where are they going?
SELYUKH: Well, we know that they have been quitting at that record pace you mentioned for several months now. June - that was over 600,000 people. And lots of workers say they simply had enough. They've been working on the frontlines of a global pandemic. They've been policing people to wear masks, dealing with testy customers. Anecdotally, many folks who have quit retail have gone to other customer service jobs, work some call centers. But historically, we know that the top destination for most people leaving retail is a different job in retail. And this is the thing that jumped out at me from the new Labor Department data that we got this week. It shows retailers hired over 1.1 million new workers in June, a record hiring spree.
CHANG: Wow. That is a lot of new workers. So what stores are doing all of this hiring right now?
SELYUKH: Well, a lot of it is the giants that thrived during last year, like Walmart, Target, various grocery stores. And here's the thing that you might not realize. New stores are actually opening in the pandemic. We've heard a lot about bankruptcies and shuttered shops you mentioned, and there are still thousands of stores closing. But here's John Harmon from Coresight Research, which tracks all this.
JOHN HARMON: For a good part of the year, the number of openings was greater than the number of store closures.
SELYUKH: Quite a few retailers are expanding - lots of discount stores like Dollar General and Burlington, also Footlocker, Aldi, Sephora. Many stores are sort of reinventing their spaces, turning them into hubs for deliveries or shipments, for example. Or in Sephora's case, they struck a deal with Kohl's to have stores inside stores.
SELYUKH: Compared to earlier predictions, fewer stores are closing than forecast, and more stores are opening.
CHANG: That is so fascinating. OK, well, we've also heard a lot about wages going up for retail jobs. Is that encouraging workers to stay in retail, you think?
SELYUKH: I think to some extent, yes. To be clear, there are still over a million job openings in retail. So you've got companies like Best Buy and Kay Jewelers raising starting pay to $15 an hour. CVS has decided it would no longer require high school diploma for some entry-level jobs. Also, signing bonuses are all around. Some workers might be jumping ship to perhaps go from one store to another store to take advantage of that extra sign-on money.
CHANG: So it sounds like there are some really good new options out there for people working in retail, yeah?
SELYUKH: Retail is the top employer in the U.S., and it is also one of the lowest-paying industries.
SELYUKH: Wages have been so stagnant for many years that even though we are seeing pay grow faster than ever before, we're still talking - for grocery store workers, for example - less than $15 an hour. Meanwhile, inflation is erasing the buying power of those new raises. I talked to Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, and she says if this was a big change that's giving workers a new kind of long-term power, wage growth would be much higher. And she worries over time, wages might simply get frozen again while prices continue rising.
CHANG: That is NPR's Alina Selyukh. Thank you, Alina.
SELYUKH: Thank you.
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