Before COVID-19, employment in New York was at a record high, with nearly 4.1 million private-economy jobs. And one of the biggest engines of growth was a career opportunity that has existed since Roman times: the supposedly humble job in a store. Without a fast revival in core Manhattan, many of these jobs are in peril — as are the outer-borough neighborhoods where retail workers live.
For the three decades since the 1990 recession, retail was an unheralded Gotham success story. Between 1993, when jobs hit a record low, and 2015, when retail employment peaked, the industry grew by more than 50 percent, to more than 352,000 jobs, from 234,000. Yes, Amazon introduced brutal competition, but the industry held its own, keeping more than 346,000 jobs at the end of 2019, or nearly 9 percent of total jobs.
Working retail is often a job for people who have never had a job before, or for people who haven’t worked in years. Retail helped push the share of New Yorkers who are connected to the labor force to 63.6 percent last year, slightly above the 63 percent national average. In 1990, by contrast, the share of New Yorkers in work or looking for work was only 61.7 percent, below the national 66.4 percent figure.
Sure, people shop in their neighborhoods. But as a new report from state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office makes clear, without dense Manhattan, tens of thousands of retail workers would have to find another line of work.
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