Working for Walmart Is Even Worse Than You Think
When I met Victoria Alvarez, 50, at a cafÃ© after her shift at Walmart, I didn’t notice her knee brace. Instead I noticed her dark eyes and glittery nail polish, which in some ways is a great metaphor for Alvarez. She’s hurting, but her bold personality still dominates.
Within seconds of meeting her, you can tell she’s the type of person who's fun to be around; she talks with her hands, speaks her mind and doesn’t take anyone’s shit. Alvarez was born and raised in Mexico and immigrated to the United States more than 20 years ago. Her heavily accented voice is confident and captivating, and she had a lot to say.
She applied to work at Walmart during the 2009 recession. After a few months of work in Arizona, she transferred to a store in Fremont, CA, an hour from San Jose, where she lives with her husband in their mobile home. Alvarez works full-time and started at $9 an hour. After five years, she makes $11.
“In the beginning, I almost lost my mobile home because I struggled,” Alvarez said. “My husband was sick and out of work. I had to borrow from friends, from family for a very long time.”
But there was more to the burden of working at Walmart than just low wages. Alvarez said as soon as she started working in Fremont, she noticed things weren't right.
“A lot of people were punished for things they weren’t suppose to be, like not finishing their work on time,” she explained. “A lot of people were doing the work of three to four people. That’s what happened to me.”
Alvarez and her supervisor ran Walmart’s Tire & Lube Express department. She was servicing customers, making keys, dealing with tires, and carrying heavy merchandise.
“I was forced to skip meals,” she said, adding that many of her co-workers have to skip meals, too. Then the workers manipulate the punch-out clock to make it look like they took a break.
“They say, ‘If we find out you do it we’ll fire you,’” Alvarez said. “But then they show you how to do it.”
Eventually, Alvarez got carpal tunnel syndrome and showed managers a doctor’s note explaining that she needed modified work. But they wouldn’t recognize it. Alvarez had to call on California’s Labor Department, which finally wrote a letter to her Walmart store. Her managers then moved her to greeting customers and pushing carts.
“I had to push carts with the leg I have, with my bad knee,” she said.
When I asked Alvarez if she has healthcare, her face reddened.
“This is what happened with healthcare,” she began to explain, tears welling up. She pays $80 a month for Walmart’s lowest option for health insurance. This is all she can afford. While workers' compensation took care of her carpal tunnel surgery, an emergency room visit for appendicitis left her with a $22,000 bill.
“I said, ‘How am I going to pay this?’”
Alvarez applied for government financial aid, which fortunately took care of the bill. It’s estimated that Walmart benefits from $6.2 billion in taxpayer subsidies for healthcare, food stamps and subsidized housing.
“I’ve been through all this,” she said, closing her eyes.
I asked Alvarez why she joined OUR Walmart—the Organization United for Respect at Walmart—and she smiled. She recalled the day she saw her co-worker walk into the store wearing a bunch of OUR Walmart bracelets two years ago. “I joked with him and said, ‘Oh I like your bracelets, can I have one?’” Alvarez said, laughing. He told her that the group was a communitiy of former and current workers fighting for better working conditions.
“He explained it to me, and I said, ‘Oh my god, this is what I need!’” she recounted. “I really wanted to join because I had a lot to say.”
Alvarez has since participated in many actions, including strikes and rallies in front of Rob Walton’s house. I asked Alvarez what she wanted to see change at Walmart. She answered before I'd finished the question.
“Retaliation is the most important thing I want to end,” she said. “That if you speak out about getting $15, about getting full-time, getting predictable scheduling, about the OUR Walmart organization or better health insurance, or workers comp or if you tell your manager, ‘Hey, I need people here to help me because the load that you’re giving me is for three people and I’m not going to be able to finish,’ they retaliate on you. And I want that to end.”
Alvarez began rattling off instances she felt she had been retaliated against. Once, she was called into the office and told she was disrespecting the dress code by wearing jeans. She was told either to go home or buy a pair of pants at Walmart. But Alvarez wasn’t wearing jeans. She was wearing black pants and fortunately saw a co-worker wearing the same pants in khaki. She pointed this out to her managers and told them, “If you’re sending me home, you have to apply the same rules to everyone.” They told her to forget the whole thing.
Another time, she was working apparel and needed to go to the restroom, so she called for backup. After waiting nearly an hour and calling for backup three times, she just went. When she got back, she was written up for her “irresponsible” act and for being “disrespectful” to management. Alvarez admits she was aggressive.
“Of course, you’re going to get mad when someone comes and tells you that you’re irresponsible,” she said. “I held it for almost an hour. I was waiting for someone to come. I didn’t see anybody. When I came back somebody was already there—it was like they were waiting for me to come back.”
Most recently she faced retaliation after coming back from a strike in Los Angeles, where OUR Walmart members held their first store sit-in.
“When I came back from the strike, they sent me to work by myself at the men’s department for two days,” she said. “And then the managers called everyone in and said the schedules for the holiday week were ready and were designed based on people’s talents. And I was on for one day only. That was the first time in five years I was scheduled to work only one day. And I said to my manager, ‘Is this retaliation because I went on strike or am I not talented?’”
The manager ultimately gave Alvarez 40 hours. But she won’t be working all of it. She will be participating in OUR Walmart’s Black Friday strikes, expected to be the organization's largest ever, with actions happening at 1,600 stores. She also will be striking the day before on Thanksgiving, when Walmart’s Black Friday sale begins at 6pm. She told me that instead of her Walmart store giving employees bonuses for working on the holidays like they used to, they now only get a 25-percent-off coupon.
“How are we going to shop when we don’t have money to spend? It’s so ridiculous,” she said. “I really believe that by striking this Black Friday, we can change how things work. We really need to participate to change things. If we don’t participate, it will remain the same. We have come so far to not participate. We have started something that is very brave for everybody.”
I ask Alvarez if she ever feared standing up to Walmart.
“No, no, no, not at all,” she said. “Whatever sacrifice it takes to change things, I will do it. And I’m not doing it only for me; I’m also doing it for my co-workers. For all those who don’t have the courage. For all of those who are scared to speak out.”
After interviewing Alvarez for an hour and 40 minutes, I apologized for taking so much of her time and thanked her for meeting with me.
“You don’t have any more questions?” she asked, surprised.
I told her to tell me anything else she wanted, and she perked back up.
She told me that several of her co-workers get injured on the job but they're too scared to file for worker's compensation. One of her managers recently got fired for slapping a worker. A few of her co-workers are homeless and live on the couches of family, friends or co-workers.
“One of my co-workers, he’s older, he lives in his car,” she said. “He has the car parking there. He eats there, he sleeps there, he takes showers I don’t know where, but he’s always there.”
She told me that the way Walmart does evaluations is unfair because they are often done by random managers, who don’t really know the workers they assess so they only give a standard satisfactory mark. That lands you a 20-40 cent raise for the year. An excellent mark gets you a 60-cent raise, the highest Walmart gives.
“You’ll never excel,” she said. “It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how much work you do, how faithful you are to Walmart, get there on time every day, when they call you to come in. You never excel.”
She told me that seeing how some of her co-workers struggle breaks her heart. Another way she sees their struggle is when she’s working the register and rings up her co-workers’ lunches.
“One woman eats the same 59-cent can of soup every day,” she said. “It’s all she can afford.”
She told me she wishes more of her co-workers would stand up for themselves, and sometimes it’s very hard for her to understand why they don’t. She has tried many times to speak to that managers on behalf of workers who are too scared, but they won't let her. But it's not like she doesn't have her own concerns.
“Well, I am in fear. Really I am in fear,” Alvarez said. “But if Walmart fires me I’m sure something better for me is waiting for me out there—that’s how I want to think. But the only thing that I would regret is not being there for my co-workers. And it doesn’t matter if they fire me, I’m going to continue fighting until the end by supporting my co-workers with my presence in every strike. When I start something, I like to finish.”
To find a OUR Walmart Black Friday protest near you visit blackfridayprotests.org.