(WOMENSENEWS)-- For Connie Larson, 51, working as a manager in California at the retail clothing chain Black House White Market is satisfying for many reasons: the camaraderie among her employees, clothing customers in the latest styles and "making women feel beautiful," as the company's slogan goes.
Yet Larson, currently on unpaid leave due to a work-related back injury, says the job has taken its toll physically and emotionally.
"It's much more fun than sitting at a desk and doing numbers," says Larson. "I love the clothes and the atmosphere, but as for the amount of money it pays and the payoff, it has me looking the other way for work."
One bane of the job is the growing pressure on sales staff to step up their sales.
As a manager, Larson is responsible for enforcing company sales standards. She tracks associates' sales metrics and posts charts so they can see their performance compared to others, buys gift cards to Starbucks for the highest seller and creates store contests to boost sales. Larson believes incentives encourage employees to do better, but sometimes the company goes too far.
"The constant push for higher and higher numbers and the expectations behind the job are very stressful," she says. "It is a very fear-based situation; where how much you bring in is never good enough, and there's a line to me that feels crossed when it goes from helping customers to pushing them for the company's sake."
"The bar is being set higher and higher," agrees Joan Entmacher, vice president for family economic security at the Washington-based National Women's Law Center. "You need to meet and exceed what was sold last year, and if you don't, you don't get commission, you just get minimum wage. The pressure is now becoming a part of the industry."
When Larson started out at Black House White Market, the company expected the workers to push for two items in each sale; now it's up to three. The employee bonus program used to start with a $300 sale, now it begins at $400 -- with only a $5 bonus.
Closer Look at Retail Sector
Of the 14.8 million Americans employed in retail, just over half -- approximately 52 percent -- are women, according to the Retail Insights Center.
Yet look closely at the sector, and it's clear the gender distribution isn't exactly equal: A 2012 study by the Center for Social Policy Publications found that women and minorities are underrepresented in higher-paying retail management positions like the one Larson holds, and overrepresented in lower paying frontline jobs such as cashiers and grocery clerks.
About 43 percent of frontline retail managers are women, according to 2012 data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the number of those women who are minorities is only a small fraction.
At $20.50 an hour, Larson's current wage is above the national average of $19.84 an hour ($41,260 annually) for frontline managers working in the retail subset of clothing and accessories, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2012.
Her company offers optional benefits, and Larson opts to have $269 deducted from her paycheck every two weeks to receive health care coverage.
In April 2013, Larson requested a transfer when she moved from Las Vegas to Corona, Calif., to be closer to her fiancé. The company found her a managerial position at another Black House White Market and gave her a small cost of living salary increase, but as a result she was ineligible for another raise.
Today, Larson suffers from severe back pain due to wearing heels on hard floors during eight-hour shifts over the years she spent, since 2008, in both direct sales and management. Changing shoes throughout the day and popping a few Aleve helped temporarily, and Larson kept working for a while even after X-rays revealed an injury to a disc in her lower back.
"I just kept going because I needed my income," she says. "But it wasn't getting any better, and my doctor told me if I didn't give it time to heal, then it could be an injury for the rest of my life."
Leave of Absence
Larson subsequently got a doctor's note and requested a leave of absence. Since May 10, she hasn't been at work, and having used up her limited paid time off Larson is now paying out of pocket for insurance without receiving income.
"If I did not have a partner whose income is capable of paying our bills at this time, I would be at work destroying my body, maybe even permanently, because I would have no choice," she says.
Larson isn't alone. A 2012 study from the Retail Action Project and the Murphy Institute found that men working in retail are more likely than women to receive health benefits and paid time off. They are also more likely to receive promotions.
Larson's retail work began when she walked into the Black House White Market in Las Vegas in 2008 to ask about part-time help around the holidays. She was hired as a sales associate earning $8 an hour. A divorced mother of five grown children, Larson had recently shut down her business in stock market education when she was compelled to return to regular employment after losing her savings in bad real estate investments.
Today, Larson has no retirement savings, and "no idea" how she would've supported her family on her current salary. (She still helps her youngest child financially.)
Larson, a newly-certified life coach, hopes to someday have her own business again where she won't have the pressures of retail.
"[In retail] it's all about your results, and I understand," says Larson. "At the end of the day, they have to answer to the shareholders."