The holidays are meant to be a joyful time. Religion aside, they are a time for family and celebration. For many workers at Walmart, however, the holidays are a source of stress and challenge. Stores become figurative, sometimes even literal, battlefields, making already-taxing work more demanding, even chaotic. At the same time, low wages and inadequate benefits stretch year-end budgets, leaving little room for the joys of the holidays.
On average, US retailers make 20% of their sales during the holiday shopping season. Walmart does not publicize holiday revenue figures, but its fourth-quarter sales are almost a third higher than the rest of the year. With profits similarly higher, Walmart and its shareholders have cause to celebrate during the holidays, especially as the company has been aggressively buying back shares, using its profits to line the pockets of investors with over $15 billion since the summer.
Walmart “associates” (the term Walmart uses for its employees), on the other hand, have fewer reasons for holiday cheer. The last two holiday shopping seasons have kicked off with highly-visible Black Friday protests organized by OUR Walmart, the organization of current and former associates that aims to improve conditions at the retail giant. According to OUR Walmart, problems at the retail giant center on a lack of respect for associates, low pay and benefits as well as haphazard enforcement of policies including scheduling. These grievances are even more evident during the holidays.
Mary Watkines is a 13-year veteran at Walmart in Federal Way, Washington. She describes a fundamental shift in the culture at Walmart that can be traced back less than a decade. For her, a more “family-oriented” approach that saw associates as partners has been replaced with a drive for profit that squeezes workers. And this squeeze is at no time more apparent than during the holidays. Mary portrays the situation at her store as a “panic” growing larger as the holidays approach. She adds that the situation at Walmart has “gotten out of hand: the abuse, the disrespect and the intimidation.”
Betty Shove was recently fired from the Walmart in Mount Vernon, Washington, where she worked for over seven years. She describes similar changes taking place at her store. Fear is now common among associates. Betty shakes her head at the difference between advertising that touts the “real Walmart” full of smiling actors playing associates and the increasingly grim reality she saw every day she went to work.
Long-time associates like Mary and Betty have seen their hours and wages cut, while the company has brought in increasing numbers of temporary workers at lower wages. Current estimates put Walmart’s temporary workforce at 10% of all associates and the company has announced that it is hiring another 55,000 temporary workers for this year’s holiday rush.
Indeed, the increasing reliance on temporary workers has created a backlash as dissatisfied customers have complained about deteriorating customer service. For permanent associates, the addition of more temporary staff reinforces the climate of fear, particularly for those considering speaking out to improve conditions. Mary says the message to associates is clear: “if you need better, you won’t have a job.”
In response to customer complaints and to its credit, Walmart has decided to promote 35,000 part-timers to full-time and another 35,000 temps to part-time for these holidays in addition to bringing in those additional temporary workers. Back-of-napkin calculations, however, point to the fact that the company could have easily hired far fewer new temporary workers and instead promoted even more of its workers to full-time status, if only for the holidays. Many would be happy to receive a much-needed year-end boost in pay since experiencing cuts in hours.
Asked about her biggest challenge at work, Betty explains, “The last two, three years…it was challenging to keep my job…They wanted part-time, young people and minimum wage.” She took a pay cut of around $5 per hour and agreed to fewer hours just to keep her job. She wonders if the increased reliance on temporary workers is aimed at intimidating existing associates into accepting worsening working conditions.
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Betty and Mary also describe associates being shifted between departments during the holidays, especially to the main cash registers, without adequate retraining. Higher holiday volumes mean that associates, trained or not, are nonetheless encouraged to increase the tempo of work. This includes avoiding small talk with customers. The community atmosphere that Betty and Mary remember is no longer supported.
A feeling of overwork is common and, together, these changes have added considerably to workplace stress. When I ask them to describe the holidays at Walmart in one word, Mary chooses “intimidation” while Betty opts for “havoc.” Representatives from Walmart did not return interview requests.
Outside of the workplace, worsening working conditions make for a less-than-happy holiday season for many associates. Mary’s single word for the holidays at home is “struggling.” She speaks about how she and her fellow associates have trouble making ends meet, even without the added expenses of the holidays. Falling behind on bills and rent, relying on food stamps and other forms of social assistance are common – indeed, Mary claims store management encourages associates to access food stamps and social assistance to make up for low pay. Researchers have calculated that each Walmart store receives the equivalent of an annual $1 to $2 million government subsidy because associates are forced to draw upon social assistance due to poor pay and benefits.
Mary describes how those associates who are eligible for food stamps have been known to sell or give away some of their stamps to those who do not qualify but still have trouble affording groceries. In very tough situations, associates have been known to become homeless and Mary, who has had a stable job for 14 years, went through such a stint herself. Her situation has improved but her grandchildren still don’t receive Christmas presents.
In Betty’s household, the grandchildren are slightly luckier – but they are the only ones to get presents. Even this is not always the case as any sudden expense, like an unexpected health problem, can upset the fragile financial balance. Both Betty and Mary talk about how holiday overtime pay, which used to be a dependable source of extra income, has disappeared as schedules are carefully crafted to ensure that associates do not receive overtime. Stretches of hectic overwork are interspersed with periods without any shifts.
OUR Walmart organizers say the organization aims to fix some of these problems. But there are large obstacles, primary among them fear. Betty and Mary, who are both active in OUR Walmart, say new employees are terrified. With few other job opportunities and dependants to provide for, many are unwilling to risk the little security Walmart gives them. Betty explains why she was willing to stick her neck out, “I am standing up for [everyone] who is too afraid…I tell them I’ve been in this three years, I’ve been arrested, they know about it all…before I got fired [I would say] I’m still here.”
Betty was fired just before the holiday rush started this year – ostensibly for working too slowly. She says that her involvement in OUR Walmart is the real reason for her dismissal and, with OUR Walmart’s backing, she will be appealing the decision in the New Year. With associates like Betty leading the way, OUR Walmart organizers believe they can be successful. The retail giant, however, does not give up ground easily – see the recent increase in temporary workers – and organizers know they have a long road ahead.
I ask Betty for that one word to describe the holidays at home. “Wonderful”, she says without pausing a beat, “wonderful because my family will be there and we’ll all be together.” It might not be a Walmart Christmas for Betty, but it will still be Christmas.