Walmart Managers Won't Tell Workers About their Newly Won Rights
At her Walmart store in Laurel, MD, Cyndi Murray is known for helping her fellow workers figure out “what is policy and what isn’t, and what we can do and what we can’t do.” It’s imperative, she said, because “our managers won’t tell you.”
That’s why she’s hoping to get the word out about Walmart’s two new policy changes. One allows workers to pick up shifts online in order to gain more hours, which pads their paltry pay. The other provides new protections for pregnant women, who have been subject to harsh labor conditions including being ordered to move heavy items.
These changes are big deals for Walmart workers, Murray said, before noting a downside. Store managers aren’t required to explain the new policies to workers — and many apparently are not — which means employees don’t always know about them. Moreover, since Walmart put its workers’ handbooks online, it’s difficult for workers to keep up with new policy changes that benefit them.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t know that [these changes] exist,” said Murray, who four years ago was one of the initiators of OUR Walmart, an organization of Walmart employees demanding respect in their workplace.
“We need to educate them,” she said. "Still to this day, it’s about helping other associates in need.”
Walmart’s ‘Downward Spiral’
Murray has worked for Walmart for 14 years as a fitting room associate, but it wasn’t until about six years ago that she started seeing changes. “It wasn’t in the better direction, it was actually in a downward spiral,” she said. “And I could see what it was doing to the workers.”
Seeing coworkers in tears after being disciplined became more commonplace. It wasn’t long before Murray found herself getting chastised by management. Murray, who suffers from chronic back pain, remembers the day she was called in the backroom by her manager and told she was going to have to start lifting heavy boxes.
“I said, ‘Hold up, I have a medical note in my file,’” Murray recalled. “So she throws an empty folder at me across the desk. So I said, ‘Okay, well, I’ll call my attorney and I’ll have him fax you my medical restrictions.’ Well she stood up on the desk — and spit is coming out of this lady’s mouth — she said, ‘What are you doing? Threatening me?’ I said, ‘I’m not threatening you. This is over. You’re not going to talk to me like that. This is intimidation.’”
Murray was shocked at her treatment, saying she had always followed directions and was on time. When she walked out of the meeting, an organizer handed her a card for a former campaign to make change at Walmart.
“Right then and there, that’s what made me stand up,” she said. “Because it wasn’t just me. They started doing it to associates for a long time.... I decided then that I was not going to stand by and let it happen.”
Winning Against Walmart
While there are many overarching issues for workers to address at Walmart, such as low wages, OUR Walmart organizers are also focusing on tackling other important policy changes one at a time. Some of their first aims, such as gaining more hours for workers and reforming the policy for pregnant workers, were recently achieved.
“This shows what’s actually possible in terms of changing company policy through the pressure [OUR Walmart] has been able to exert and the publicity they have gained for their actions over the past couple of years,” said John Logan, a labor and employment studies professor at San Francisco State University.
Murray said that even while low wages account for a large part of Walmart workers’ struggles, being able to gain more hours is at least a step that helps cover living costs.
“I watched people who couldn’t even afford to buy Tylenol for their sick child, and that broke my heart. And you’re working for one of the richest companies in the world? Why should that be? There’s something wrong,” she said. “Even with the 40 hours, our wages are so low, it’s still hard to make it. But it’s a start.”
Logan agrees, and said the new policy should not be underestimated as it was an OUR Walmart demand from the beginning.
“This was always an issue of central importance in saying that part of the reason so many Walmart employees live in conditions of dire poverty is that they can’t get enough hours. They can’t work full-time even when they want to work full-time,” Logan said. “And the unpredictable scheduling prevents them from taking a second job or going back to school or whatever issue they may face in terms of scheduling.”
Murray said her and her fellow workers started a petition in her store nearly two years ago demanding more hours. Though Murray is a full-time employee, she stood up for her co-workers, some of whom had to work two or three jobs because they were only given 18 hours of work each week. When the petitions didn’t work, the workers began to take action. Murray and her co-workers went to morning meetings to make sure their voices were heard on these issues, went on strike several times, and gained community support. Facing increased pressure, the store eventually decided to give workers the opportunity to pick up extra shifts that weren’t covered. This experiment took place only in Murray’s store in Maryland for about a year and a half, until last week when Walmart announced that the policy would be practiced across the country.
Workers can now look on their training computer terminals, select "scheduling" and pick shifts they want to cover. The shifts are available, Murray said, because Walmart doesn’t fully staff its stores. “All our stores are understaffed, and Walmart keeps them that way,” she said. “All these shifts that are open — these are shifts that a person should be in working.”
Murray said there are still some factors that have to be worked out with the new policy. For instance, many of the shifts workers are picking up are outside of their main department, and because there are different pay scales for different departments, Murray wants workers to be able to get extra money for working in a department with a higher workload.
She also wants Walmart to create more full-time positions so workers can gain full-time benefits. Part-time work at Walmart is considered a workweek of less than 34 hours. These workers don’t receive any sick days.
“If you’re doing full-time, why can’t we make you full-time?” Murray said. “I think it’s just BS that you’re just going to say ‘We don’t have a full-time position to lock you down in.’ … Walmart’s not winning [with having] part-time associates for a short period of time. I don’t see how they really think that could be good for the company.”
Walmart workers recently saw another victory, this one smaller and more of a step in the right direction, after the corporation announced it would reform its policy concerning pregnant workers. Murray was a key member of the "Respect the Bump" campaign demanding policy change. She worked in the same store as Tiffany Beroid, who was featured in a Washington Post story last weekend. When Beroid presented Walmart with a doctor’s note explaining her high-risk pregnancy and her need for light-duty work, managers responded by telling her there was no light duty work, effectively forcing her to take unpaid leave. This cost her a nursing degree and forced her husband to work 18-hour days.
“I was there. I saw them tell her, ‘Okay you need to go home, we don’t have anything for you that’s light duty,’ which is wrong,” Murray said. “They could have let her be a cashier or sit on the stool [to greet customers].”
Walmart’s policy only allowed pregnant workers a change in their work placement if it was "both easily achievable and which will have no negative impact on the business."
Murray said she’s seen Walmart managers force pregnant workers to perform work that’s hazardous to their pregnancy.
“Walmart would make a woman climb a ladder, pull a pallet,” she said. “And they would tell her to her face that ‘[pregnancy] was nothing but a condition. You’ll be over it soon.’”
In January 2013, A Better Balance, an organization that works to enhance the lives of working families, wrote to Walmart, claiming that the corporation was violating the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 1978 Pregnancy Discrimination Act. A year later, Walmart responded by claiming its policy was legal. A Better Balance and the National Women’s Law Center filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of a pregnant worker whose supervisor would not relieve her of carrying heavy boxes up ladders even after she brought in a doctor’s note.
Murray was also one of the two Walmart workers and shareholders who notified the Security and Exchange Commission of their intention to submit shareholder proposals to Walmart asking its board of directors to revise its policy. Two months after sending Walmart the request, the corporation responded with a letter to Murray saying that a presentation wouldn’t be necessary, and that it was going to change its policy.
“I think they knew that there was no way we weren’t going to win that,” Murray said. “I don’t think that was going to make them look any better in the eyes of the shareholders for us to go there.”
A Better Balance and the National Women’s Law Center say there are still factors that need to be worked out with the new policy, which states that women may be eligible for accommodation if they have a “temporary disability caused by pregnancy.” They say the word “disability” leaves it unclear if it will apply to women with healthy pregnancies, not just women like Beroid with high-risk pregnancies. This, John Logan said, leaves “very serious questions as to whether the new policy remains illegal under ADA.”
“[The new policy] is surely significant,” Logan continued. “But I think Walmart will continue to be under a lot of criticism for not going far enough with regards to the change of accommodation and employment policy. … [It] is not resolved and I think you’ll continue to see both outside pressure and threats of legal action.”
Needless to say, Walmart has claimed that neither of these changes was in response to any kind of worker pressure. But Murray knows better. “Had we not brought it to light and built Respect the Bump, and the same way with the scheduling change, had we not did petition and actions, they weren’t going to change anything,” she said, adding that Walmart has still refused to acknowledge that workers are standing up for better treatment and respect.
“One time they said OUR Walmart didn’t exist. You know how many of us have joined across the country? There are a lot of us. And we’re proud members,” Murray said. “It’s only when things are brought to light do things change.”
Spreading the Word
After successfully pushing for these policy changes, Walmart workers have to focus on spreading the word about their victories. Instead of celebrating the changes as an advancement in workers’ rights, the corporation has remained silent, seemingly in hopes that workers who aren’t informed about their rights won’t be willing to fight back. Murray said in her own store, many workers didn’t know about the new online scheduling policy until she told them about it.
“Ours were up for quite some time, and one of the girls was in the breakroom and she starts saying, ‘I don’t have enough hours,’” Murray said. “And I said, ‘Do you want more hours?’ And she was like ‘Yes! I need 40 hours a week.’ I took her by the hand and I took her to the three weeks of the schedules and she was like, ‘I didn’t know what this was. I looked at these over and over and nobody ever explained it to me.’ So I explained it to her, and now she can get her 40 hours a week.”
Logan said labor law does not require managers to thoroughly inform employees of new policies.
“They will, I’m sure, be posting notification of the new policy,” he said. “But it wouldn’t necessarily take the form of a letter or email to every single one of its 1.3 million Walmart employees letting them know the details.”
Cyndi Murray suggested that Walmart has been trying to suppress workers’ rights for years, since it switched from hard copies of workers’ handbooks to online handbooks. She said in the past, she would always have a copy of the handbook on her and would be able to glance at it during work to help fellow workers understand their rights.
Now, she said, “If you want to know a policy, whatever it may be, you have to be able to take the time off the floor and go back and sit and look at the computer to try to find that policy, which makes it hard for an associate because they’re not going to let you go back there. It may take you an hour or two to find a policy that you’re looking for. When we had the handbook, we could just leaf through it and find it, which was easier.”
Murray said that she believes this change was purposeful.
“I believe that when they realized that we really looked at and utilized these books, they put them in the CBL terminal,” she said.
For now, Murray just wants workers to be aware of their new rights.
“I really need Walmart workers to be educated about the fact that they have an available shift in their CBL terminal because it’s just hard for us to reach other associates.”