Monday, June 20, 2005

I'll take "Evil Retail Giants" for $500, Alex

I no longer shop at Wal-Mart, for reasons that really aren't all that surprising -- I have no problem with "Big Box" retailers, but I find Wal-Mart stores dirty and gross and I find their labor practices abysmal. I'm never all that surprised when I read about the way they treat workers there, but even I was agog when I read about this little policy change one store tried to implement:

Wal-Mart officials in Cross Lanes told employees on Tuesday they have to start working practically any shift, any day they’re asked, even if they’ve built up years of seniority and can’t arrange child care.

Store management said the policy change is needed to keep enough staff at the busiest hours, but some employees said it appears to be an attempt to force out longer-term, higher-paid workers.


Workers who have had regular shifts at the store for years now have to commit to being available for any shift from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., seven days a week. If they can’t make the commitment by the end of this week, they’ll be fired.

"It shouldn’t cause any problem, if they [store employees] are concerned about their customers," Knuckles said.

Several single mothers working at the store have no choice now but to quit, said one employee, who would not give her name for fear of retribution.

"My day care closes at 6 and my baby sitter can’t work past 5," said the employee, a mother of two who has been a cashier for more than three years. Neither of the services is available over the weekends, she added. "I have to be terminated; I don’t know what I’ll do."


Wal-Mart corporate spokesman Dan Fogleman said other stores have such rules, but that he did not know if stores are ever required by headquarters to institute them. The officials who did know were attending a conference on diversity and could not be reached, he said.

"This is something that is done throughout Wal-Mart stores," Fogelman said. "The reality of retail is that our busiest times are evenings and weekends, so it only makes sense that we have higher staffing levels at those times."

I found that utterly astonishing when I read it. I mean, I was totally floored. Wal-Mart has managed to become the leading retailer in the world, and yet now they're faced with such a staffing crunch that they have to put the screws to workers who simply might not be able to commit to open availability?

But then I read this report:

Wal-Mart headquarters overruled a policy decision by one of its store's that would have terminated any worker who failed to agree to be available to work any shift between 7 a.m. and 11 p.m., seven days a week, according to the Charleston Gazette (West Virginia).

The Nitro, West Virginia, store announced its "open availability" policy to employees earlier this week, drawing criticism from employees and worker advocates.

A corporate spokesperson says the company reversed the store's decision because Wal-Mart has no policy that calls for the termination of employees who are unable to work certain shifts, the Gazette reports.

Well, that's a little bit refreshing, although not really. First of all, there's that spokesman's statement in the first article about the "open availability" policy being in place in other stores besides the one mentioned therein; secondly, there's the fact that the corporate overruling of the policy seems to not be on the basis that the policy is Draconian and cruel but rather that this store's specific policy apparently threatened termination of employees who are unable to comply, which leads me to wonder if such policies are OK with Wal-Mart, as long as noncompliant employees are simply "pushed out" by various managerial means such as slashing their hours to well below their subsistence levels and purposely scheduling them for shifts that make life as difficult on them as possible, thus giving them incentive to quit in favor of newer workers who are compliant (as well as being cheaper workers, which newer workers always are).

I'm glad that store's policy got overruled, but color me unconvinced that Wal-Mart's corporate HQ decided to strike a blow for the families of its workers. More likely they were embarrassed by a manager who went on record as saying that if you work for Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart's customers should be more important to you than your own family. Look at that quote again:

It shouldn’t cause any problem, if they are concerned about their customers.

I'll say this for the guy: he's got guts. There's no way you'd ever get me on record saying something like that.

No comments: