What It's Like to Work in Walmart Hell
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Thanks to recent teacher layoffs and the miserable job market, I've gone from substitute high-school teacher to Wal-Mart associate.
Teaching gave me weekends off for more pleasurable activities like annoying the roommate's cat or plucking my nipple hair. But this Sunday, I spent eight hours playing Avoid the Customer. It's a challenging game in which, at the end of the day, I reward myself by not committing suicide.
Why do I play this game? Sanity. Last week, for example, I walked behind a middle-aged mother who, after ordering her kid to drop a toy in the hardware section, told him, "Don't worry, they'll pick it up."
Customers may be the worst part of my job, but they're not the only part of this gig that sucks.
See, like millions of Americans, I'm underemployed. The government doesn't count people like me in its official unemployment numbers.
And those numbers are pretty grim; the national unemployment rate is at 9.6 percent, with 15 million Americans looking for work. I guess working at Walmart is better than nothing.
But working for low pay is about as rewarding as stabbing out your own eyeballs with a stale baguette. $14 billion in profits last year bumped Walmart back on top of the Fortune 500 list, and the company keeps up those profits partly by paying associates as little as (legally) possible. Walmart wages are not only well below living wage, we're paid significantly less than comparable jobs at other retailers.
But I don't have children or major medical expenses, so I do OK with my pathetic paycheck. But several of my coworkers support spouses or children; one just told me he relies on government support to pay his bills, including child support.
My coworkers are a diverse mix. Many are immigrants with limited English skills. Others have college degrees and wound up at Walmart when the economy tanked.
Still others are well past retirement age, requiring canes or shopping carts to move around the store. Yet these are the people management sees fit to post at the front of the store for hours at a time as a shoplifting deterrent. (Did I say shoplifting deterrent? I meant, "Store Greeter.") I haven't been at the store long enough to ask these sextegenerians (and well beyond) why they're still working, but I'm guessing it's not because they really, really, really like wearing blue. They're probably like the growing number of seniors who have lost their retirement savings and are forced to work to keep their health benefits (if the store offers them any), and to keep themselves out of poverty. Hell of a way to spend your final years, demanding to check the receipt of every person walking out of the store.
As diverse as Walmart associates are, we have at least one thing in common: When it comes to our jobs, we have no voice. Walmart is America's largest private employer, yet the 1 million workers who put on that red, white and blue nametag each week have zero collective bargaining power when it comes to our pay, benefits or working conditions.
Walmart corporate policy remains fiercely anti-union. At my employee orientation, we were shown a video titled, Protect Your Signature, a piece meant to frighten us away from even trying to organize a union. A Walmart document distributed to managers describes the types of employees attracted to unions. Among them, the "inefficient, low-productive associate," the "rebellious, anti-establishment associate" and the "something-for-nothing associate."
There are two instances, both in Canada, in which Walmart associates successfully joined a union. In both cases, Walmart decided to shut the store or the department where the workers decided to organize themselves.