Wal-Mart Working Conditions Debate Rages Around Meeting

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By Tyrone Richardson

June 3 — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. executives defended the company's wages and other workplace conditions during the retail chain's annual shareholders meeting in Arkansas, a direct response to some critics.

An employee, Margaret Hooten of Placerville, Calif., alleged during the June 3 meeting that the company was failing to address such workplace issues as low wages, inadequate employee training and low staffing at some stores.

“I love my job, but I’m frustrated by the broken promises from management,” Hooten read from a prepared speech. “Like many of you, when Wal-Mart said it would increase wages, expand career opportunities, offer more training, and put more staff in our stores, I was excited. Then I got my paycheck. My raise was just 23 cents an hour.”

Hooten's comments add to what has been some long-standing criticism of the nation's largest private employer on such issues (186 DLR A-3, 9/25/14).

Jeffrey Gearhart, Wal-Mart's executive vice president of global governance and corporate secretary, responded to Hooten by saying the company “is a place of opportunity and we do invest in our people.” He touted the retailer's commitment to spending $2.7 billion from 2015 through 2016 to increase wages and training for its workers.

The workers aren't represented by a union for collective bargaining purposes.

Criticism Surrounds Shareholders Meeting

Hooten's comments add to what has been a steady stream of criticism of Wal-Mart leading up to the retailer's shareholders meeting held in Bud Walton Arena on the University of Arkansas campus in Fayetteville, Ark. There has been a history of various actions against Wal-Mart leading up to and during the company's annual shareholders meetings (103 DLR A-4, 5/29/15). The actions have generally involved improving worker rights and increasing wages.

As for this year, a delegation for Organization United For Respect at Walmart, also known as OUR Walmart, talked with the company's chief executive officer, Doug McMillon, and hand-delivered a petition signed by more than 200,000 workers asking for $15-an-hour wages. The organization is a nonprofit association of current and former Wal-Mart hourly employees and their supporters.

The group also put a mobile billboard in front of the Wal-Mart corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Ark., on June 2 that read: “The Walton heirs are worth $149 billion. Walmart can afford $15/hour and full time.”

United Food and Commercial Workers, through its Making Change at Walmart campaign, took out a full-page ad in USA Today criticizing the company's revival of the “smiley” logo.

“It’s ironic that Wal-Mart is bringing back the smiley at a time when workers and customers are so unhappy with the company,” Jess Levin, the union's communications director, said in a written statement. “Many Walmart workers are still struggling with poverty wages, erratic schedules, and under-staffing at their stores, and many customers don’t want to shop at a store that treats workers so poorly. Walmart’s logo isn’t the problem; its values are.”

Making Change at Wal-Mart also helped orchestrate protests the week of the shareholders meeting, including in Washington, St. Louis and Oakland, Calif. The rallies called on Wal-Mart to pay workers higher wages and make other improvements such as more reliable work schedules, according to organizers.

One of the rallies June 3 was described as a “community baby shower” in front of Wal-Mart's federal government relations office in Washington. The event was held to highlight the plight of Arleja Stephens, who organizers say was fired from Wal-Mart for absences related to her pregnancy.

The allegations come weeks after a National Labor Relations Board regional director in April issued a consolidated complaint saying Wal-Mart managers and supervisors in 10 states violated federal labor law in 2014 and 2015 by trying to dissuade hourly workers from taking part in one-day strikes protesting workplace conditions (85 DLR A-10, 5/3/16).

The complaint was the result of several unfair labor practice charges filed by the UFCW and OUR Walmart.

Company Raises Wages

The company has fired back at critics. It announced in January a pay increase for hourly workers to at least $10 an hour or a one-time lump sum payment equal to 2 percent of their annual pay if their wage rate is at or above their pay band maximum (12 DLR A-3, 1/20/16). The new wage scale also meant the new minimum wage for top-level hourly employees increases to $15 an hour from $13, while the base salary for assistant managers also will rise.

The company's move was met with tepid responses from some critics who told Bloomberg BNA then that the pay raise was a step in the right direction, but stopped short of providing a decent living wage.

Workers Speak Out

As for Wal-Mart employee Hooten, speaking at the shareholders conference marked at least the second time in a week she told her story.

Hooten, who has worked at Wal-Mart for five years and earns $10.69 an hour, was part of a June 1 panel discussion sponsored by Making Change at Wal-Mart. The event included comments from several current and former workers.

As for Hooten, she voiced discontent about low wages and the lack of promotion opportunities.

“Wal-Mart talks about good wages and opportunities for advancement, but I don’t see that in my store,” she said. “What I see are department managers doing the work of three people.”

Lorene Berry, a Wal-Mart worker in Chicago, said the issues seem to be common among many of the stores.

“We all have problems with management, we all have problems with wages and we have had things happen to us that we thought was done unfairly,” she said. “As an associate at Wal-Mart, it is stressful when you know you are being underpaid, knowing how will you going to make a living and make ends meet.”

Berry said she was part of the panel discussion to spur changes at the company.

“They need to treat us fairly,” she said. “They need to come up on wages and treat us like people, like the hardworking people we are.”

Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, told Bloomberg BNA June 2 that the company is proving successful with its current workplace, as a recent earnings report shows store traffic has been up for six straight quarters and U.S. sales have been positive for the past seven three-month periods.

“Our investment in associates and the business are working and starting to pay off,” he said in a written statement.

To contact the reporter on this story: Tyrone Richardson in Washington at trichardson@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com

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