Dispatches from Wal-Mart's Front Lines

Last spring, I did a little amateur research that illustrated how Wal-Mart's wages can fail to provide for even a rock-bottom living standard -- even at Wal-Mart prices. Email responses arrived over the next few days. Among the many colorful "I hate Wal-Mart" messages were notes from some critics who maintained, via arguments worthy of Dr. Pangloss, that the company's wages are just about right, because otherwise no one would work there.

As the article made the rounds of the Internet and some local newspapers, I started receiving emails from Wal-Mart employees. There was a steady stream of messages over the following months, with some arriving as recently as late October.

In relating their stories, past and present employees (er, "associates") sliced right through the abstract talk about supply-and-demand and wage inflation, and offered a good look behind the big yellow Wal-Mart happy face. They all requested that I strip from their quotes any identifying information.

Here are excerpts from what they had to say:

Thank you for bringing Wal-Mart's pitiful hourly wages into the light. Bottom line: Wal-Mart is a great place to shop, it's a great stock to own, but it's a horrible place to work if you're an hourly associate. You will starve financially.

They tell us all the time that "Our People Make the Difference" and that if wasn't for the employees our store would be nothing. So they give us little food parties and buttons we can collect -- to get what? We get all of these facts about how many new stores they are going to build next year -- how many more do you need? Why not give back to your employees first, seeing how we make the difference? Then build your stores.

I have worked for this unappreciative company for two years. Since I graduated high school, I have managed to go from a whopping $6.15 to $6.78, which I will not obtain until August 15.

I think the whole thing about Wal-Mart being anti-union has a lot to do with the underpaid employees or maybe not, we just might be giving the extra money back to the union, but I don't know a whole lot about unions. Wal-Mart just tells us not to sign anything because they are just after our money.

The present manager made a comment that all he can control are wages. What that means is that the lower he can keep them, the better the store profit and the greater his yearly bonus.

From a "greeter":

I have seen single mothers try to stay off welfare and make it on what they make at Wal-Mart and it has made me sick.

I have been with the company since '96 and have been in management off and on throughout the years. Wal-Mart was once a good company to work for, every year it has continued to get worse. . . I have seen a lot of great associates leave the company due to lack of caring and respect for the individual (as W-M so preaches). Wal-Mart isn't the company it once used to be. It's all about the mighty dollar now, and who cares about the little people?

I have been on food stamps for years and so are many other associates. After being with Wal-Mart for seven years and with all my experience I still can't afford to get off food stamps. I will be starting my new career soon and leaving Wal-Mart.

Full-time is 28-37 hours generally. They cut hours constantly depending on sales, sometimes as much as two hours a day. On average, the pay increase is 35 cents a year.

It is very difficult at times to live on the earnings. Normal hours would be a blessing as well. Most of us work a different shift daily (7-4, 9-6, 10-7, 11-8, 12-9, 2-11, or 10pm-7am). It can be frustrating especially to those that are married or have children. The divorce rate is extremely high...as well as the turnover rate.

If we are asked to work overtime they do not usually let us keep it. I worked a 12-hour shift one time because they were shorthanded. I was tired and worn out, but I could use the money. The next day when I came into work I was told I would have to come in one hour late, and leave one hour early to get rid of the overtime. I was not happy, but I didn't have any choice. They use us like that constantly always saying we need you, can you help us out, and then when we do it's a slap in our face.

God forbid if you are injured on the job. They do everything they can to force you out and make you quit or just flat out fire you. Their basic belief is that every accident is your fault. If you have one you are forced to go to classes on the weekend for several weeks to learn about safety and write essays on why you were injured. If you do not show up for these classes you can and will be terminated.

Whenever a union rep comes around to the store we are forbidden to even acknowledge him/her. If we are caught speaking to any one of them we are automatically terminated! They basically put down the reason for dismissal as anything they want, to avoid any publicity about the union or Wal-Mart's fight against one. The store constantly has videos and pamphlets about why we would not want a union and why it is so bad to belong to one.

Employees are also constantly bombarded with guilt to give to the Children's Miracle Network, add another $15 a month, then there is the United Way fund that we must sign an agreement on, whether or not we contribute. Most do contribute, due to the encouragement of the management, at about $25 biweekly.

As a former Wal-Mart worker, it used to make me sick to my stomach when Wal-Mart would pressure the low level, low-paid workers to donate money to Children's Network or United Way, or make the lowest-paid workers take time to do bake sales, etc. for charities... THEN WAL-MART TAKES THE CREDIT.

My husband, a Wal-Mart Supercenter pharmacist, works six days a week, 10-12 hours a day. He is the only pharmacist employed at this location. When he is at home, he is so exhausted he does little more than sleep and watch some sports on TV. He has been a pharmacist for over 26 years but after just five years of such abuse at Wal-Mart, he is now beginning to suffer the physical results of such daily toil on his body.

On occasion, day-shift people are placed on temporary duty and not given a shift differential. Some employees are working 7-8 days straight with no overtime pay because of the way the pay week is set up.

We used to have a nice little town in Bentonville, business in abundance around the square. One by one the shoe shops and dress stores all went under, crippled by the big demon.

There were other stories, too. They came from a cashier who could not get compensation for an injury that was clearly job-related; a former Wal-Mart personnel manager who refuses to shop there, having seen "gross mistreatment" of employees; employees complaining about frequent cuts in hours, often so the store can avoid paying overtime; a mother whose son has found that he can get a day off if his truck breaks down, but not if he's sick; and, finally, one employee who went from $5.25 to more than $13 an hour in five years at Wal-Mart and loves working there!

For one last quote, I'll turn to Wal-Mart's most well-known ex-"associate," Barbara Ehrenreich, who, near the end of her book "Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America," reflected on her experience:

Someone has to puncture the prevailing fiction that we're a "family" here, we "associates" and our "servant leaders," held together solely by our commitment to the "guests." After all, you'd need a lot stronger word than dysfunctional to describe a family where a few people get to eat at the table while the rest -- the "associates" and all the dark-skinned seamstresses and factory workers worldwide who make the things we sell -- lick up the drippings from the floor: psychotic would be closer to the mark.

Stan Cox is a plant breeder, writer and thrift-store shopper living in Salina, Kansas.

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