By Georgette Carrillo
Big box stores, once hailed for their one-stop shopping convenience, vast parking lots, 24-hour shopping convenience and retail taxes for local coffers, appear to be losing their luster. Today, big box stores, in particular Walmart, are gaining national media attention for their antiunion stance; low wages; quality, or lack thereof, of healthcare; unfair scheduling and poor labor practices; and an overall negative impact on locally owned business and communities.
Although Walmart is not alone, given that it is the largest retailer in the United States with 2.2 million employees (internationally, behind only the U.S. Department of Defense and the People’s Liberation Army in China), Walmart should be held to a higher standard and should be a leader in the business community, a message that is often repeated on its own Web site. For example, Walmart claims that it “is driving meaningful change in a way that no other company can. And we’re committed to using our size and scale to help the world live better.” What better way for a company with revenue of $469 billion in 2012 to lead and to improve its image than to improve how it treats its own employees?
A plethora of grassroots organizations have recently begun to band together to get Walmart to change its unethical employment practices. One such organization is OUR Walmart, which started in 2010 with a handful of employees and has grown to several thousand members. Recently, OUR Walmart partnered with the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union, a 1.3 million member organization that strives to improve the lives of workers and their families and the communities of its members. UFCW demands that employers pay decent living wages, offer employees quality affordable healthcare, ensure fair and transparent scheduling and, most important, treat employees fairly and with respect.
OUR Walmart is not seeking to unionize; rather, OUR Walmart is simply seeking assistance from an experienced organization with a proven track record of improving the lives of workers. Although it is easy to dismiss the efforts of a group such as OUR Walmart considering that the vast majority of its members are not employed by Walmart, Walmart is often emulated by its competitors and other businesses because of its sheer size, growth and immense profitability. Thus, Walmart sets the industry standard for other employers when it reduces its employees’ hours, demotes full-time employees to part-time status, retaliates against employees who voice opinions, endangers its employees by ignoring safety and environmental regulations and pays its employees non-living wages.
To lend a hand to our friends and neighbors, several local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) labor group members visited area Walmarts to educate employees about labor regulations in order to help them demand living wages and more equitable working conditions. During our visits, several Walmart employees stated that they were instructed by store management not to speak to us, a clear violation of labor laws.
In one instance, an employee who was within arm’s reach was overheard calling management and stating, “[a] union member just approached me. I am calling because I was told to contact management.” Upon the arrival of management, IBEW members informed her that Walmart cannot legally direct its employees to avoid interacting with labor organizations. Rather, a labor organizer may discuss labor regulations with an employee so long as they are not interfering with the worker’s duties or barricading entrances and/or exits.
During our visits, numerous current and former employees reported that they had been the recipients of threats by management. Some stated that they were instructed not to speak with OUR Walmart members under threat of termination or reprimand. Other employees reported that they were required to meet unfair and unreasonable daily point quotas or face termination. Other employees stated that they refused to report unjust treatment or conditions for fear of being terminated.
Others stated that they believed that they had been punished in the form of unfavorable work schedules or reduced work hours, or that they had been bypassed for promotional opportunities or denied pay raises because they had voiced an opinion. Several employees stated that Walmart does not have an “open-door” policy which, although not required by law, is the industry standard in businesses, large and small, in order to encourage direct dialogue and transparency with the employees of the company.
In addition to termination, the many Walmart employees we conversed with feared a reduction in their work hours. Nearly every employee we spoke with stated that their hours had been reduced for trivial reasons. At the Dinuba Walmart, employees who voiced a concern over reduced hours were told by management that their hours were being reduced because they could be replaced by self-checkout registers and that the new systems “don’t call in sick.”
Employees also expressed displeasure with how limited hours were distributed for the remaining employees and stated that favoritism by management was evident. Again, although it is not illegal to improve efficiency with advances in technology, it was apparent that management was not overly concerned with employee morale or the well-being of its valued associates.
During our visits, many employees expressed fear of termination for violating company policies or, in the case of Emma Martinez, for following them. According to Martinez, she was terminated for following company protocol when she adjusted the price on a single bottle of alcohol for a customer who contended that the shelf price was a few dollars lower than the price that registered at the checkout counter. Disappointed about her termination, she presented her case to management, which dismissed her pleas. According to Martinez, Walmart stated that price adjustments could not be granted on alcohol even though the company literature was silent on the subject of alcohol.
Another former employee was terminated for working overtime, which must be preapproved by store management. She contends that she had her supervisor’s approval, but Walmart proceeded with her termination. In both cases, Walmart attempted to deny unemployment benefits. Although both examples are anecdotal, nearly every employee we spoke with articulated similar concerns. No current employees were willing to discuss their employment on record for fear of retribution.
Although Walmart presents itself as a leading employer, low-wage positions are common at the company. On its Web site, Walmart claims that it pays its employees on average $12.78 per hour. However, IBIS World, an independent research group, found that the average Walmart employee earns $8.81 per hour, a difference of approximately $1,900 over a one-year period for a full-time employee. Moreover, Walmart was recently at the center of a contentious debate in front of the Washington, D.C., City Council over legislation that requires that all “big box” retailers making more than $1 billion in yearly revenue with floor space of 75,000 square feet or greater to pay employees at least $12.50 per hour, up from the current standard of $8.25 per hour. Oddly enough, Walmart’s Web site claims that its employees earn on average more than the recently adopted standard. As a result, one must question its sincerity.
On average, a Walmart employee earns $15,500 per year (according to IBIS World), whereas Costco, a comparable company, pays its employees roughly $45,000 per year. Like Walmart, it is a nonunion company. However, unlike Walmart, Costco attempts to compensate its employees significantly better while it also offers affordable benefits. It is also worth noting that employee turnover is significantly lower at Costco than at Walmart.
At the local level, Walmarts are often eagerly approved by city councils convinced by the promise of jobs. However, recent studies have concluded that Walmarts and other big box stores do not necessarily equate to higher revenues for local governments. For example, a recent study commissioned by the California Local Government Commission found that the Turlock Walmart “yields 48.6% less property tax revenue per acre than the average downtown property.” Thus, when calibrated on a per acre basis, downtowns generate significantly higher property taxes than big box stores.
Moreover, Walmarts often cannibalize local markets, forcing existing businesses to close and leading to urban blight. According to research by IBIS World, a Walmart Supercenter can cost taxpayers an average of $900,000 per store year because of tax incentives and government assistance such as food stamps, Medicaid and cash aid given to Walmart employees to supplement their low wages. As a result, recent studies have concluded that big box stores may not be as beneficial to local governments as once believed.
Georgette Carrillo is an active member of IBEW Local 1245. Contact her at OurWalmartFresno@gmail.com