Maggie, a 33-year-old Walmart associate in Colorado, barely survived the first week of “chaotic hoarding” that ensued when coronavirus fears first sent everyone into a panic-buying frenzy. Despite being sick, she continued to work until she nearly fainted on the job. After taking two weeks of unpaid leave to recover, she thought things might have cooled down. But instead, she says, “It was a horror story. We barely caught our breath after the hoarding, and now we have to deal with ‘Stimulusgeddon.’ Every day is Black Friday — over and over again.”
On April 15th, 80 million Americans got their stimulus cash (with more of them slated to receive it over the following weeks). According to data compiled by Business Insider, most of that money (roughly around $1,200 per American) is being spent on food and groceries. But plenty of it is also going toward nonessential items that can be found at stores and chains like Walmart that sell essential goods, too, which is what allows them to stay open when pretty much everyone else has been forced to close.
“We’re selling a lot of big-ticket items, like TVs, phones and Nintendo Switches. I’m talking big trains, like eight pallets long of just TVs,” says Sam, a 33-year-old associate who has worked at Walmart for four years. “Customers say they don’t think this is a big deal, so they’re just going to blow their stimulus check on a TV while everyone else freaks out.” (An Arkansas mayor had to take to Facebook after his town’s Walmart sold out of TVs, pleading with his citizens to spend that money on essentials.)
Yet as the cash flows inside of Walmart, none of it seems to flow back to associates like Sam and Maggie. “What I consider the most infuriating part of this,” Maggie says, “is seeing with our own eyes the amount of money Walmart is making and knowing none of that will come back to us — the people putting our lives on the line so their sales can continue to explode.”
Walmart, naturally, claims otherwise. And in March, it did pay out $550 million in associate bonuses and also advanced payouts on quarterly performance-based bonuses. The thing is, its labor practices are questionable to begin with, as it’s often sued for forcing employees to work extra hours while skirting around paying them overtime. In 2008 alone, Walmart settled 63 such wage-related lawsuits, and in 2016, it raised manager salaries just enough to avoid federally mandated overtime laws. Meanwhile, according to a 2018 study by the labor group Organization United for Respect, more than 50 percent of Walmart’s employees are considered part-time, “well above the industry average of around 30 percent.” “Walmart is well-known to have people work just under full-time hours, or even cut them right at the end of a pay period, to restrict access to benefits,” Maggie tells me.
Moreover, the average Walmart associate starts at $11 an hour, and according to Walmart’s 2019 annual report to the SEC, the annual total compensation for a median associate is $22,484. On the flip side, Doug McMillon, Walmart’s president and CEO, earned $22,105,350 for the fiscal year 2019 — or roughly 983 times more than that median associate. In fact, he and five other top Walmart execs earned a combined $112.39 million in 2019 — a number that most certainly will grow in 2020 if March’s massive 20 percent growth in sales continues. (Walmart argues that it has to keep employee pay as low as possible as a way of “minimizing operational costs.” It’s a core value that’s been baked into Walmart’s business model from the start, albeit romanticized by Sam Walton driving an old pickup truck despite his massive fortune.)
All of which is to say that there are some key caveats to those pandemic-related bonuses. “Besides the one-time bonus of $150 for part-timers and $300 for full-timers, our pay remains the same,” says Derrick, a 26-year-old associate in Texas. “Walmart employs mostly part-time associates, and for them, $150 is like being spat at. All it takes for an associate to qualify as ‘part-time’ is to be scheduled 32 hours a week or less. Keep in mind, you can’t have overtime. If you have overtime at the end of the week, you run the risk of getting written up or fired.”
Sam, a full-time employee, got the $300 one-time bonus, but he contends, “Considering I work 13 days on, then one off, putting in an average of 55 to 60 hours per week, how is this considered decent hazard pay?” (Counting Sam, I spoke to a total of 12 associates throughout the country, each of whom confirmed their employment at Walmart via screenshots of their schedules and personal profiles within the employee-only portal; they did, however, ask for pseudonyms in fear of reprisal. Walmart itself has yet to respond for comment.)
Along with the bonuses, Walmart has touted a new sick-leave policy as a safety net for associates. But it, too, isn’t exactly as it seems, employees claim. Essentially, at the start of the pandemic in March, Walmart announced that it was suspending its point-based attendance policy where being late or missing work accumulated “points,” in which nine points led to termination. Within that announcement, it awarded two weeks of unpaid leave for all associates, no questions asked. “Mind you, not a lot of Walmart associates can afford two weeks without pay,” Derrick explains, “but it didn’t take long for Walmart to quietly renege on that big announcement, sending an update through the employee-only Wire.”
Derrick interprets the announcement above as Walmart walking back its original promise that associates could take those two weeks with no questions asked. Instead, he says it makes clear to him that unless associates were required to take leave by the government, health officials or their Walmart managers, their leave would be deducted from their accrued PTO. And if they didn’t have PTO, “it’s unpaid time off and they’re just saying you won’t get fired,” Derrick explains. “But who would actually trust that?”
Overall, associates say they feel largely in the dark as to whether their time off is paid or unpaid; if it comes from existing PTO or from the additional “COVID-19 Emergency Leave”; and whether that time qualifies as an authorized absence — even though there’s been a big to-do about all absences being authorized. (Here is a 16-page PDF outlining the ins and outs.)
In terms of limiting the spread of COVID-19 among employees, Derrick says there’s a twofold strategy: 1) A temperature check done by infrared thermometers prior to entering the store — a means of screening that’s been largely panned for providing a false sense of security more than accurately detecting fevers; and 2) a three-question-long health screening that asks associates whether they’ve experienced coronavirus symptoms, traveled outside the state they work in or overseas or been within six feet of someone with the virus for longer than 30 minutes. In the event that an associate answers yes to the second or third question, they will be sent home and paid for however many hours they were scheduled to work that day. After that, how and if that associate is able to stay home with pay becomes, as Sam describes it, “an absolute fucking clusterfuck.”
“A ton of stores were making up policy as they went, resulting in people [posting on Reddit about] being fired because their managers disregarded policy, and many more either having to use their PTO or getting an attendance point count against them, which affects things like their quarterly bonus,” he explains. “It’s been a nightmare.” (Per a recent survey of retail and food-service workers done by the University of California, Berkeley, this problem could be solved by federally mandated paid leave; left up to companies, the survey found that restaurant and retail employees often don’t know they have paid sick leave available to them or feel unable to take advantage of it.)
As for the quarterly bonus Sam mentions, employees say it’s mostly just an advance on profit sharing they would normally receive, global pandemic or no global pandemic. They’re based on sales, attendance and CFF, “which is basically subjective bullshit about clean, fast and friendly, based on customer surveys,” Sam explains. “So they can be all over the place, but for most part-timers working 32 hours per week, for 12 weeks, we’re talking like 70 to 80 bucks. Pretty useless.”
Maggie is all too familiar with everything above, but the sick-leave policy in particular. After she nearly fainted in her store, she utilized her newly gifted two-week leave to self-quarantine. However, because she chose to quarantine herself (and wasn’t directed to by Walmart or the government), and because her doctor chose not to give her a coronavirus test, those two weeks ended up unpaid. Ever since, she’s been under the impression that she’s “used up” her COVID-related unpaid leave, and any further absences could lead to her being fired. As a result, she recently wondered if she should mention a debilitating stomach ache she suffered the night before a shift.
“If I told them, I don’t know what would’ve happened,” she tells me. “I’d probably be sent home and told to stay home without pay for a few more days.” That wasn’t something she could necessarily afford, so she lied and went to work.
At the same time, whether because people are sick, stressed or have quit, the stores themselves are short-handed just as Stimulusgeddon descends upon them. “Walmart says they hired 150,000 people, but how many stay?” Sam asks. “Our shift hired three new people, and only one lasted longer than a week. No hazard pay, and being thrown into this mess without training just means the hiring they’re doing is useless. Everyone says ‘Fuck this!’ and bails.”
More largely, he echoes a common refrain on the Walmart subreddit that he’d make better money if he stayed home and collected unemployment. “For a real-world example, a typical associate making $11 an hour and working 32 hours brings home $352 a week. Let’s even add the $150 ‘bonus’ compensation to one week’s pay, which brings them to $502,” Sam explains. “Compare all this to just one week of federal unemployment of $600 per week. It’s something to consider.”
“I fantasize about getting on the PA and announcing a walkout,” Maggie adds. “We stand out front, block the entrances, demand hazard pay and not show up until things change.”
According to The Intercept, Maggie’s walkout fantasy might come true on Friday, as associates at Walmart, FedEx and Amazon are planning a general strike, an idea that’s picked up momentum on the Walmart subreddit over the last few days:
What, though, would real hazard pay look like?
For Sam, it begins with raising Walmart’s starting hourly salary. “If the federal government passed the $13-per-hour hazard pay, we may be able to attract real help that will stay and lower the workload for the rest of us. People might also feel enticed to show up to work who are calling in and taking leave. Still, $1 to $2 per hour probably isn’t enough. But up it to something like $25 an hour, maybe?”
He also suggests the elderly and immunocompromised should at least get short-term disability pay, with job protection. “That way, if you feel comfortable enough to work, you’d be rewarded with extra pay, and those who can’t work, can at least pay their bills and put food on the table,” he says. And if they or any other associate — whether they’re elderly or immunocompromised or not — contract the coronavirus, Sam believes Walmart should guarantee that their medical bills are completely paid for. Because as it stands, Sam says his $3,000 deductible will likely prevent him from going to the hospital “until it’s too late, since I don’t know what they’ll actually cover.”
“So if I start getting symptoms, my first instinct would be to tough it out,” he continues. “I mean, what if I go to the ER and don’t get tested, but they send me home with a bill for $500 for some Flintstones vitamins and a cough drop?”
Despite it all, though, Sam doesn’t want to quit his job at Walmart — he just wants a fair share of the profits the retail behemoth is about to get from Stimulusgeddon. “I look at it like deep sea welders,” he tells me. “Someone has to do it, but because it’s dangerous, they’re paid more, and because of that compensation, they’re willing to deal with the risks. But right now, it’s like we’re regular welders who have been given a snorkel and told to get the fuck down there and get welding, because it’s essential someone does it. Most people confronted with that reality decide to take their leave, which adds to the work for the rest of us, though I don’t blame anyone for doing so.”
Unfortunately, Sam’s ideas — or those of any other associate that could improve the well-being of Walmart employees — will likely go unheard. As per Walmart’s recent annual report, including associate-level employees on the company’s Board of Directors would be “unnecessary.”