News & Politics

What It's Like to Work in Walmart Hell

Thanks to recent teacher layoffs and the miserable job market, I've gone from substitute high-school teacher to Walmart associate.

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.

And it's demoralizing knowing that by working for Walmart, I'm sleeping with the enemy. Our clothing section is filled with goods sewn by Third-World sweatshop workers earning pennies per hour. The toy section brims with petroleum-based products that will just end up in landfills a few months from now. There's the in-store McDonald's and its high-sugar, high-fat menu. There's nothing -- not a goddamn thing -- about big-box retailers that makes the world better.

But one of the worst parts of my job is the one that makes it all possible: the customers, which brings me back to the Avoid the Customer game.

I didn't always play this game. When first hired, I followed founder Sam Walton's 10-foot rule: Whenever a customer wandered near me, I smiled, greeted them, and asked if there was anything I could do to help.

But that was before the guy who was looking for blenders in the garden section. Or the woman who left her half-finished generic soda sitting in the toy section. Or the guy who shoved another customer's kid out of the way to pull a pillow off the rack. Or the guy who was pissed -- pissed! -- that the coffee filters were stocked next to the coffee machines. Or the woman who, after almost plowing me over with her shopping cart, laughed, "You can't hit the help."

Avoid the Customer mostly involves walking the least-trafficked routes through the store. When heading out to lunch, I take the path of least annoyance: through furniture, automotive and sporting goods. (No surprise on that one; many customers have at least one X on their clothing tags, due partly to the aisles and aisles of processed, low-nutrient junk food we gladly sell them.)

Next week, though, I'm adding a new trick: When asked for help, I'll respond, "No hablo inglés."

Even my supervisors, whose qualifications generally include being white, male and sporting unfortunate styles of facial hair, do their best to avoid the pawing hordes who make their miserable jobs possible. (Yeah, that class-action lawsuit alleging that Walmart promotes mostly men to management positions? Totally the case in my store.)

A couple of months ago, Consumers Digest ranked Walmart stores dead last in customer service among big-box retailers. So was it coincidence that Sunday I spent a half hour watching a training video on customer service?

I tried not to gnaw my arm off as Gas-X commercial rejects enacted examples of less- and more-effective customer service. Supposedly we're not supposed to act as though customers are interrupting us from our endless tasks, even though that's exactly what they do.

Walmart keeps hammering it into its associates that we're here for the customers. Bullshit. I'm here for a shitty paycheck so I can buy beer and rehash the poor life decisions that brought me to Walmart in the first place.

Call me pessimistic, but any signs of economic recovery aren't trickling down to my paycheck. My roommate just beat out 300 applicants to land his new job. Craigslist job postings are filled with scams. (Did I say scams? I meant, "work from home" opportunities.)

But like I said, I should count my blessings. It is better than not having any job. And at least I don't work in fast food.

Walmart is America: underpaid workers cleaning up after malnourished customers purchasing Chinese sweatshop goods.