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‘You can’t pay bills on $12 an hour’: Walmart employees left out of raises

The Guardian logo The Guardian 28/10/2021 Michael Sainato
Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA © Provided by The Guardian Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

Mendy Hughes, 46, has worked as a cashier for Walmart in Melbourne, Arkansas, for 11 years.

Her hourly wage, after a recent increase, is $12.85 an hour, a mere 85 cents more than the hourly starting wage for new hires despite her 11 years with the company.

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“You can’t pay your bills, rent and buy groceries on $12 an hour. I don’t think anywhere in the United States, you can do that. No way,” said Hughes, who is a member of the campaign group United for Respect. “I don’t understand how they think $12 an hour is enough to live on, because it’s not at all.”

As the largest employer in the US with nearly 1.6 million workers, Walmart has faced criticism for years over low wages, working conditions, a reliance on keeping workers on part-time schedules and wage theft.

Walmart announced in September the company would raise the minimum wage at Sam’s Club locations from $11 to $15 an hour, but Walmart employees were left out as the parent company raised the minimum wage from $11 to just $12 an hour for Walmart workers. Earlier this year, Walmart announced it would raise wages for 425,000 employees to $13 an hour, emphasizing it would increase the company’s average hourly wage to more than $15 an hour.

A Walmart employee collects shopping carts in Alexandria, Virginia. © Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA A Walmart employee collects shopping carts in Alexandria, Virginia.

But thousands of Walmart employees are still struggling to make ends meet with low pay and many are now speaking up to agitate and campaign for a wage increase. Walmart workers who are members of United for Respect for Walmart are pushing for a $15 minimum wage at the company.

A diabetic with four children, Hughes continued working throughout the pandemic.She said working conditions had worsened due to lack of Covid protections and customers who took out their frustrations on staff around missing products, understaffing, and Covid protocols.

“We never have enough people,” Hughes said. “We have long lines, people are backed up all the way to the clothes and sometimes wrapped around, because there are maybe two or three, sometimes only one cashier, and the self-checkouts are card only so people who can’t use those are mad and it’s hard to deal with people now.”

In recent years, Walmart’s competitors have raised their hourly minimum wage to $15 an hour, including Target in 2020, Amazon in 2018 and Costco to $17 an hour in 2021.


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In the 2021 fiscal year, Walmart reported a profit of more than $13.5bn. In February, Walmart’s board of directors approved another $20bn stock buyback program. From November 2020 to the end of January 2021, Walmart repurchased more than 10m shares in the company at over $140 a share, spending more than $1.4bn.

Walmart is owned by the Walton family, the wealthiest family in the world, with an estimated net worth of about $238bn. During the pandemic, Alice, Jim and Rob Walton saw their net worths climb by over $10 bn each.

Anna Turner worked at Walmart in Stockton, California, for more than eight years as a door greeter and customer service associate before she was fired in January, after she had spent months complaining to Walmart corporate, her store management, and California Osha about Walmart’s poor Covid responses.

Through her time working at Walmart, Turner noted she made less than $15 an hour and she was never hired for full-time hours, though she said her department was chronically understaffed.

“After eight and a half years working the most difficult area of my store I was making just under $15 an hour at part-time. They would always cut our hours so we couldn’t get full-time and health benefits,” said Turner, who relied on Medi-Cal for health insurance through her employment at Walmart.

“I was fired for not lying on my Covid-19 health and temperature assessments. It was the last thing I said to management the day things started and eventually led to me being fired,” said Turner, who said she was terminated after an incident where she had to take a break after experiencing an anxiety attack when a customer threatened to assault her over trying to return an item. “That place gave me such bad panic attacks and I was mistreated on a regular basis because of the situation Walmart created by not staffing that department.”

In the first nine months of the pandemic, Walmart provided only a fraction of their Covid profits to workers in the form of hazard pay and additional compensation, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institute. The Waltons’ net worth increased 26 times more than the cost of Covid compensation for Walmart workers, estimated at 71 cents an hour in additional wages for workers, compared with a $6.2m an hour wealth increase for the Waltons.

A research brief by Human Impact Partners published in October found a $5 an hour minimum wage increase for Walmart workers would improve mental and physical health for workers, including an increased lifespan of nearly two years.

“Walmart is the largest private employer in the country, they employ more women and people of color than any other employer in the country. So they have a large stake in terms of setting the tone for racial equity in our country and financial security as well,” said Sukhdip Purewal Boparai, research project director at Human Impact Partners and author of the brief. “Walmart really can set the stage and in shifting into transforming the lives of the people that work for them, especially during the pandemic, as they’re putting their lives at risk.”

Peter Naughton, a cashier and self-checkout host at Walmart in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for two years, recently saw his hourly wage increase from $11.55 an hour to $12.55 an hour with the new company-wide wage increases. But Naughton said the increase did not go far enough, and he criticized Walmart for eliminating quarterly MyShare bonuses for all employees, which often provided workers with an extra few hundred dollars every three months.

“A $1-an-hour increase does not help. We have less money now with a $1 raise than we did before,” said Naughton. “Walmart could raise our wages to $15, $18, even $20 an hour, but they don’t want to, out of greed. Walmart is the most subsidized company in America by the government.”

He said many of his coworkers have additional jobs and rely on Snap, rental subsidies and other government relief programs in order to make ends meet. In many states, Walmart is the top employer of Medicaid and Snap beneficiaries.

In April 2021, Naughton had to vacate his apartment and move in with his parents because he couldn’t afford the rent and other bills on his salary at Walmart.

“I couldn’t afford the rent, the utilities. I couldn’t afford food or to pay my car note and insurance at the same time,” added Naughton. “If they would raise our wages to even $15 an hour, that would help us have more money to spend. They could actually afford to do that. But they don’t want to do that. It’s really all about the money.”

A Walmart spokesperson said in an email: “While we are not going to provide details about individual personnel matters, the claims being made are simply not accurate. We are proud of the industry leading health screening protocols and emergency leave policies we’ve developed and maintained throughout this pandemic.”

They added the MyShare bonuses were eliminated and rolled into workers’ wages and claimed thousands of people are not on public assistance programs because they work or are insured through Walmart. They characterized the Human Impact Partners’ study developed with United for Respect as “misleading” and “flawed”.

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