Next goal for Wal-Mart workers: More hours

Anthony Rodriguez, seen with fiancee Melinda Prothero and their son, Maximus, 2, in El Monte, Calif., said he can’t get more shifts at Wal-Mart and finds little solace in getting a raise next year.
Anthony Rodriguez, seen with fiancee Melinda Prothero and their son, Maximus, 2, in El Monte, Calif., said he can’t get more shifts at Wal-Mart and finds little solace in getting a raise next year. NYT

For Anthony Rodriguez, every diaper for his 2-year-old son means less money to put food on the table or to fill up his car at the gas station. His fiancee, Melinda Prothero, tries to make each diaper last longer, but there’s a limit to that, he says.

Rodriguez, 26, makes those trade-offs even though he already receives an above-minimum wage at Wal-Mart and will make at least $10 an hour next year, part of a move by Wal-Mart to raise wages for hundreds of thousands of workers.

“It’s not going to help us. We need the hours,” said Rodriguez, a member of the union-supported workers’ group, OUR Walmart.

He says he constantly begs his managers for full-time work at the bustling Wal-Mart superstore in Rosemead, Calif. He generally works about 28 hours a week but can be assigned as few as 18 hours.

“I work as hard as I can, and when they offer me hours, I stay,” he said. “But when the time comes, and I beg them for hours because I’m not going to afford rent, they don’t want to help me.”

The move to increase hourly wages by Wal-Mart, which employs 1.3 million workers as the country’s largest private-sector employer, is sending ripples through the retail industry. On Wednesday, TJX Cos., which runs the discount chain T.J. Maxx, said it would follow suit, raising the pay of its hourly wage workers to at least $9 later this year, and to $10 next year.

With some progress on the hourly wage front, labor activists are highlighting another long-standing demand: more hours – and more consistent hours – for hourly wage workers such as Rodriguez, something they say will make as much a difference to workers’ pocketbooks as an increase in wages.

Wal-Mart says about half of its hourly-wage workers work part time, and that percentage can be even higher at other retailers. Stores change many of their workers’ schedules week to week. And while many people prefer to work part time – for instance, college students eager for extra spending money – the number of part-timers who would prefer to work full time is growing, especially in the retailing and hospitality industries.

“Wages are just the first step in getting Wal-Mart on the road toward being the type of employer that treats its employees with respect, and part of that is to set some standards around hours and work schedules,” said Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorOfChange, an online civil rights organization that has campaigned for Wal-Mart to raise wages and give workers better hours.

“It’s about creating an environment where employees are not just at the whim of Wal-Mart,” he said.

Fewer middle-class jobs

At the heart of demands for higher wages and better hours, experts say, is the dwindling number of middle-class jobs. More primary wage earners who in the past might have held stable blue-collar jobs in manufacturing are now relying on low-wage jobs at Wal-Mart or other discount retailers to support their families.

“Wal-Mart always provided jobs at the margins of the labor force – to people who were just re-entering the labor force after many years, for example, or supplementing a spouse’s income,” said Gary N. Chaison, professor of industrial relations at Clark University. “But what you’re increasingly finding is that it’s the primary wage earners who work at Wal-Mart because a lot of workers have more or less given up on getting middle-class jobs.”

“Now these workers are being pushed into Wal-Mart-type jobs, they’re demanding higher wages, full-time jobs and better benefits,” he added. “So I wouldn’t necessarily interpret Wal-Mart’s higher wage as a sign of an economic turnaround. I would interpret it as permanently bad news.”

At the same time, Wal-Mart and other retailers, facing stiff competition and shrinking margins, have taken a more severe approach to controlling labor costs, doing more to align staffing to customer traffic. Sometimes that involves sophisticated software that tracks the flow of customers and allows managers to assign just enough employees to handle the anticipated demand.

By hiring a large pool of hourly workers whose hours can expand or contract depending on business need, retailers can better sync hours to demand, experts say; posting schedules with limited advance notice allows managers to further minimize the risk of assigning too many hours. Restricting work hours also limits outlays on overtime and employee benefits.

“A number of companies have become more focused on keeping a very tight link between variations in consumer demand and the number of staffing hours,” said Susan J. Lambert, an employment expert at the University of Chicago. “It’s easier to do that if you have a lot of people who can be scheduled for very short shifts, and who are hungry for hours.” She added, “But that makes it harder, harder and harder for these workers to move up the ladder in terms of wage growth.”

Scheduling’s an issue

Wal-Mart has said that on top of raising wages, it will work to give some employees more control over their schedules. It is also pursuing broad changes to its hiring, training, compensation and scheduling programs, said Kory Lundberg, a company spokesman.

“The company is creating clearer career paths for associates so they know what is expected of them in order to move from entry-level positions to jobs with more responsibility, including full-time positions,” he said. “Associates across the country have access to more than 1 million extra hours a week. The good news is, associates are able to select these open shifts whenever they want to pick up more hours beyond what they are scheduled.”

At both state and federal levels, there have been some efforts to address the problem of hours and scheduling. The San Francisco Board of Supervisors in November passed a law requiring retailers to post schedules two weeks in advance and to give any extra hours that become available to existing workers, rather than hire new workers.

For Kelly Sallee, 22, a cashier at a Wal-Mart in Dayton, Ohio, more hours would mean more savings toward a wedding and starting a family – something she has put off for more than a year because she feels unable to afford even a small wedding. She makes $8.15 an hour as a cashier, and will make at least $9 when Wal-Mart’s wage increases kick in.

But assigned as few as 21 hours a week, she will still struggle to pay bills or the rent, which she splits with her fiance, Calvin, who makes even less than Sallee at his job at a local Subway. They have no car and have unpaid medical bills of $500. They are both looking for other full-time jobs.

At Sallee’s number of hours, a higher hourly wage could translate to less than $20 a week. With a price tag of almost $5,000, even a modest wedding at the All in One Banquet Center in Ohio – her dream wedding venue, with a gazebo and pretty white fencing – seems very much out of reach.

“I just don’t feel like I have enough money for any of that,” she said. “Not without more hours.”