When Wal-Mart Comes To Town, What Does It Mean For Workers? | KUOW News and Information

When Wal-Mart Comes To Town, What Does It Mean For Workers?

Apr 2, 2015
Originally published on April 3, 2015 12:58 pm

This is the second in a two-part story about Wal-Mart. Read and listen to Part 1 here.

One of the biggest objections critics often raise about Wal-Mart is how it treats its workers.

The company has long been hammered by critics for its low pay and erratic work schedules. And its worker policies have a major impact on economies: With more than 2 million people on the payroll — 1.4 million of them in the U.S. — it's the third-largest employer in the world, behind the U.S. Defense Department and the People's Liberation Army of China.

So when Wal-Mart sets its sights on an urban area, it brings controversy — but it also brings jobs.

Take what happened in Washington, D.C. Wal-Mart opened its first locations in the nation's capital in late 2013 — only after it defeated a city council bill that would have required big retailers, and only big retailers, to pay higher wages.

After that bill failed, the city raised minimum wages for all D.C. employers to $9.50 per hour, which enabled Wal-Mart's opponents to claim partial victory.

"I was never really against Wal-Mart — I was against the wages that they were paying," says D.C. City Councilman Vincent Orange, who co-sponsored both wage bills. One point Orange made two years ago is that Wal-Mart's wages are so low, and D.C.'s cost of living so high, that workers end up on social services — food assistance and the like. While that's still true, Orange now says that it's better, on balance, to have the jobs.

"Yes, there are people that work at Wal-Mart that utilize social services," he says. "But Wal-Mart has also helped. Wal-Mart has offered jobs."

For D.C. native Ernest Reed, any wage was better than no wage at all. He was one of about 23,000 people who applied for hundreds of job openings when Wal-Mart launched its first D.C. locations.

Reed, 62, had never before set foot in a Wal-Mart. Three months after starting, he was promoted to supervisor of the back room where deliveries are unloaded. Tall, energetic and charismatic, Reed works full time. That means a quarterly bonus, health care, and — for the first time in his life, he says — a retirement plan.

Reed wears a navy knit cap with the company logo — and people notice. "I can walk out the store right now and I guarantee, somebody will say, 'Man, do they have any openings, man? Are they hiring?' " Reed says. "I get this every day. Somebody's looking for a job at Wal-Mart."

Meanwhile, it's clear that the very community that opposed the store also shops here — in droves. Wal-Mart says its stores in the nation's capital have met traffic expectations. It says the stores contributed $6 million in tax revenue last year, that it currently employs 700 people in the city — mostly D.C. residents — and that it has brought down costs for shoppers in the city.

Not every employee is as positive as Reed, however. There have been worker protests in Washington, D.C., since the stores opened in December 2013, with protestors claiming that the retailer does not pay enough and fails to offer stable hours to its employees.

Fatmata Jabbie, a single mother of two toddlers, works as a cashier in the Wal-Mart in Northern Virginia, just outside the city. Jabbie, 21, earns $8.80 an hour and says her hours are all over the place, which makes it hard to arrange childcare and impossible to get a second job.

But mostly Jabbie complains that she can't get enough hours, even though she's repeatedly asked to be made full-time. When she expects to work 30 hours in a week, she says, "then they send you something like, 'Oh, go check your schedule.' " Often, she says, the store will drop her hours down to 20 or 26 hours. Sometimes, she says, "I'll have no hours for a week."

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman says the company plans to make schedules more predictable. She also points out that even part-time workers get some benefits, like a retirement plan and paid time off. But they must average 30 hours per week to receive health benefits.

Cashier Jabbie does not work enough hours to qualify. She also says she can't make ends meet without public assistance. "I have to get childcare assistance. And I have to get housing help. Wal-Mart, the money I'm getting ... is nothing."

Jabbie says everything she earns goes to her rent and utility bills. "I can't buy food with my Wal-Mart money. I have to wait for my food stamp[s] in order to buy food."

This week, Wal-Mart will raise its minimum pay to $9 an hour nationwide, and then again to $10 an hour next year. Jabbie says she's happy about that — she feels it's a response to the efforts of activists like herself. But a report released Thursday by Americans For Tax Fairness, a left-leaning advocacy group, finds that a full-time Wal-Mart worker would need to earn at least $15 an hour in order to stop qualifying for public assistance programs like food stamps.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg says the company will also be expanding opportunities to advance. "If an associate knows they want to move up to a certain position, they're gonna be able to have specific training for that position," she says. "It's kind of more of a mentor-type program, so it'll be a great opportunity for them."

As for how the communities around the Washington stores are adjusting to having Wal-Mart in their midst, it depends on whom you ask.

Rev. Graylan Hagler, a long-time community activist and pastor at the Plymouth Congregational church, will have three Wal-Marts in close proximity to his church. He says the city struck a bad bargain with the retailer by not holding out for higher-paying employers and making too many concessions.

"We have reconfigured all these streets to accommodate the development," Hagler says. He points to one example: a Wal-Mart on Georgia Avenue with a massive underground parking garage. Meanwhile, the on-street parking area that used to exist in front of the businesses across the street is now a no-parking zone.

But Wal-Mart has its community supporters, too, including Brenda Parks, an elected neighborhood liaison that NPR spoke with. She calls that Georgia Avenue Wal-Mart a great success. It draws traffic and revenue from nearby Maryland residents, and she says residents who opposed the project before it arrived now like it — and especially like having a new grocery store option close by.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When I was growing up, I lived in a big city suburb. It was just a few miles' drive from downtown. But it was a big deal, a big leap when we got a chance to go downtown. Everything felt different there.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

That is exactly the leap that the world's largest retailer has made in recent years. Wal-Mart made its name by spreading out of Arkansas into small towns and suburbs across America. Doing business in city centers was different.

INSKEEP: And it was only in recent years that Wal-Mart arrived in places like the one we will visit next - central Washington, D.C. Move around the U.S. capital these days and you see all the familiar landmarks - the Supreme Court, Union Station, the Smithsonian and Wal-Mart.

MONTAGNE: Wal-Mart is such a huge company. It buys so much, sells so much and employs so many that it's arrival changes a community. That's one reason it draws criticism. Our colleague David Greene has been in the aisles of a Wal-Mart in the nation's capital. He spoke with NPR's Jennifer Ludden and Yuki Noguchi.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Hey, Yuki.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So two new stores have already opened in Washington. They were opened in December of 2013 over the objections, we should say, of a lot of city politicians who said Wal-Mart just does not pay its employees enough. What has happened since then?

NOGUCHI: So Wal-Mart opened only after it defeated a bill that would have required big retailers and only big retailers to pay a higher minimum wage. But since that bill failed, the city raised minimum wages for all employers in the city. So that enabled opponents of the Wal-Mart to claim at least partial victory. I talked to City Councilman Vincent Orange. He co-sponsored both the bill to raise the minimum wage that large retailers would have paid, which failed, and the subsequent general minimum wage hike, which succeeded. And he pretty much stands behind Wal-Mart now.

VINCENT ORANGE: I was never really against Wal-Mart. I was against the wages that they were paying.

NOGUCHI: While that's true, he says it's better, on balance, to have those jobs. You've seen a very similar drama unfold in Chicago, were politicians that opposed Wal-Mart there have also kind of similarly come around.

GREENE: Come around - you know, softening their criticism and also in some cases probably actually shopping there. I mean, that's one thing we've seen in the story of Wal-Mart over the years - that sometimes there'll be opponents who actually, you know, end up shopping there. And Wal-Mart is making the point here in Washington that they are doing good things for the community. Is there a way to measure whether that's true?

NOGUCHI: Wal-Mart says that these stores have met their traffic expectations. It says the stores contribute $6 million in tax revenue every year. And it currently employs 700 people in the city, mostly D.C. residents. And they say that it's brought down the cost of shopping in the city.

GREENE: You talk about the number of people who work there. And we should say there have been some worker protests since the opening. And our colleague Jennifer Ludden is going to talk about that in a minute. But, Yuki, you did speak with a few members of the community who remain not so happy about this.

NOGUCHI: Yeah, that's right. I interviewed Reverend Graylan Hagler, a longtime community activist and pastor at the Plymouth Congregational Church. Hagler is a very striking person. He's tall, has a salt-and-pepper beard and wears a black beret. He's always saluting people. And he shakes hands with these young men who call out to him as we cross the street.

So there are going to be three Wal-Marts in close proximity to Hagler's church - the two you already mentioned plus another one that's just a half a mile from his church. He took me to one of those stores still under construction. I asked him whether Wal-Mart addressed some of his concerns about employment and community impact since the stores have opened.

REVEREND GRAYLAN HAGLER: It has actually really confirmed my suspicion.

NOGUCHI: Hagler believes the city struck a bad bargain with the retailer by not holding out for higher-paying employers and making too many concessions.

HAGLER: Wal-Mart is saying, well, city didn't give us anything. Well, that's a lie. We have reconfigured all these streets to accommodate the development.

NOGUCHI: And to illustrate how this played out, we drove up to another store on Georgia Avenue, a mile to the west.

HAGLER: We've done the same type of pattern here. You got a massive garage in the back.

NOGUCHI: There, there's a dedicated underground parking lot labeled Wal-Mart parking. Meanwhile, the on-street parking that used to exist in front of the businesses across the street is now a no parking zone.

HAGLER: And so as you can see, at the city's expense we widened the street to accommodate the cars, took away parking, which is surely - is damaging to these businesses.

NOGUCHI: And so we drop in on one those businesses - a classic barbershop with those black leather seats.

DEMITRIUS REDMOND: How you doing?

NOGUCHI: Demitrius Redmond is a longtime barber embittered about Wal-Mart's entry.

REDMOND: And, like, this gentleman has his wheelchair right here. He has to call me, and I have to have someone come around the corner, go down the street to get him, to push him up this hill because it's so challenging.

NOGUCHI: But of course, David, I talked to the elected neighborhood liaison there, a woman named Brenda Parks. And she calls that Wal-Mart a great success. She says it draws traffic and revenue from nearby Maryland residents. And she's talked to residents who were against the store coming in before who have changed their minds. And they like especially having a new grocery store option.

GREENE: All right - talking to NPR's Yuki Noguchi about the arrival of Wal-Mart here in the city of Washington, D.C. The company's increasingly coming into urban environments. Yuki, thanks a lot.

GREENE: Now let's bring in another voice here. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been spending time with people who work in urban Wal-Marts here in Washington, D.C. As Wal-Mart moves into big urban environments like Washington, like Chicago, like Los Angeles, it creates jobs. People are going to work there. But those jobs and what they pay have created some controversy. And, Jennifer, welcome. Let's talk about this.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi, David. So when Wal-Mart came to Washington, D.C., there were 23,000 people who applied for jobs there.

GREENE: Wow.

LUDDEN: I met one of them - Earnest Reed (ph). He's a Washington, D.C. native. He says he had never stepped foot in a Wal-Mart before he applied for a job there. He remembered he'd been out of work for two years. He was thinking, hey, any wage is better than no wage. Just let me get my foot in the door. I'm going to work my way up. And that is what he's done.

EARNEST REED: Let's see what our truck looks like here today.

LUDDEN: Just three months after he started, Earnest Reed was promoted to supervisor of the back room where deliveries are unloaded. He inspects a truck packed tight.

REED: Oh, wow. This is a beauty.

LUDDEN: He is 62 years old, tall, energetic, charismatic. He works full time. Now, that means a quarterly bonus, health care and even for the first time in his life, he says, he has a retirement plan.

REED: Wonderful. I love it. They match you dollar-for-dollar on their 401(k) plan. If I put in a hundred dollars, they match me $100. And the benefits are so plentiful. I have so many benefit packages that come to my house from Wal-Mart. It's unbelievable.

LUDDEN: Now, Reed wears this navy, knit wool cap that has the company's logo right across the front.

REED: I can walk out the store right now, and I guarantee you someone will say, man, do they have any openings, man? Are they hiring? I get this every day. Somebody's looking for a job at Wal-Mart.

LUDDEN: David, Earnest Reed says he loves working at Wal-Mart so much he plans to stay until he retires. But of course, not every employee is so positive.

GREENE: Well, let's hear about that because I know for years, we've heard about worker strikes, these campaigns demanding better conditions for people who work at Wal-Mart. Are there people who are making that case now, here?

LUDDEN: Absolutely. We've had protests at one of the Wal-Marts in Washington, D.C. There are people here who still think the company doesn't treat its workers well enough. I met a woman who works in Northern Virginia, just outside D.C. She's been with a Wal-Mart there for one year and has been an activist there, has gone on strike. Fatimah Dejabi (ph) is 21. She's a single mother with two toddlers. A cashier, she makes $8.80 an hour. Now, she says her hours are just all over the place - morning one day, night shift the next. She says it makes it really hard to arrange childcare and impossible to get a second job. But mostly, she complains that she can't get enough hours, even though she's repeatedly asked to be made full-time.

FATIMAH DEJABI: So let me say I expect 30 hours this week. And then they send you something like, oh, go check your schedule. They probably drop it to 20, 26. It happened to me, too. I will have no hours for a week.

LUDDEN: None at all?

DEJABI: None.

LUDDEN: Now, a Wal-Mart spokesperson says the company does plan to make schedules more predictable and also points out that even part-timers at Wal-Mart get some benefits although they don't get sick days and not health care. Employees have to average 30 hours a week to get health care, and cashier Dejabi does not. She also told me she can't make ends meet without public assistance.

DEJABI: I have to get childcare assistance, and I have to get housing help. Wal-Mart - the money I'm getting for is nothing - only go to my rent and my utility bills. I can't buy food with my Wal-Mart money. I have to wait for my food stamp in order to buy food.

GREENE: Jennifer, the Wal-Mart spokesperson said they're trying to make schedules more predictable. But besides that, I mean, is the company addressing these other types of complaints?

LUDDEN: Actually, just recently they have said they are going to raise the minimum wage they pay to $9 an hour this year, $10 an hour next year. Now, Fatimah Dejabi says she's very happy about that. She feels that is a response to the pressure that activists like herself have put on the company. A Wal-Mart spokesperson, Amanda Henneberg also says the company is going to expand opportunities to advance.

AMANDA HENNEBERG: If an associate knows they want to move up to a certain position, they're going to be able to have specific training for that position. It's kind of more of a mentor-type program. So it'll be a great opportunity for them.

GREENE: OK. A voice there from a Wal-Mart spokesperson. We heard from Wal-Mart employees. We heard from politicians, just getting a sense for what it has meant for the city of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding areas to have more Wal-Marts arriving in a type of urban environment that Wal-Mart didn't used to come to. NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thanks a lot.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: We're hearing elsewhere in today's program about Wal-Mart's political influence. Indiana recently passed a much-debated religious freedom law. Arkansas did not. Governor Asa Hutchinson said he wants the legislature to change that bill which critics say could be turned against gays and lesbians. The governor said he wants to ensure Arkansas is known as a state that does not discriminate. Surely, the governor had many reasons for his decision. But it was widely noted that the business community opposed the bill. One vocal opponent was Wal-Mart, the state's most famous company. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.