Wal-Mart’s holiday gift to employees: More hours of work

The Washington Post

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is taking an unconventional approach to seasonal hiring this year by doing away with the longtime tradition of recruiting — and training — thousands of temporary workers for the holiday crush.

Instead, the world’s largest retailer says it will dole out extra holiday work to its existing employees.

“These extra hours will help staff traditional roles like cashier and stocker, and newly created positions such as personal shoppers and pickup associates,” Judith McKenna, chief operating officer for Walmart U.S., said in a statement. “This is what working in retail is all about, and we know our associates have the passion to do even more this year.”

Wal-Mart employees and labor advocacy groups say the move could help address long-standing complaints among workers who say they are underemployed. Many part-time employees, they said, would like full-time work. Wal-Mart considers 34 hours a week — the point at which workers receive more benefits — to be full time.

But, they added, the new policy also raises a number of questions: Will employees be forced to take on extra hours? Will they be penalized if they take time off during the holidays?


“The struggle to get enough hours has been the No. 1 issue angering associates,” said Dan Schlademan, a spokesman for OUR Walmart, an employee group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “We’ve never been able to understand why Wal-Mart continues hiring seasonal workers when there are so many people begging them for more hours.”

Retailers have long relied on seasonal workers to get through the holidays. But with the national unemployment rate nearing a 16-year low, economists say it is increasingly difficult to attract temporary workers for jobs that typically pay low wages.

Target Corp., which plans to hire 100,000 seasonal workers this year, is raising its minimum wage to $11 an hour beginning next month. Toys R Us, which plans to hire more than 12,000 part-time workers despite filing for bankruptcy last week, says it will pay weekend rates during peak holiday times and will offer additional employee discounts this year.

Wal-Mart, meanwhile, says its new policy will benefit its employees by allowing them to take on up to 40 hours a week during the holidays. The company quietly tried a similar approach last year, which it says was well-received by employees and customers. The year before, it hired 60,000 seasonal workers.

“We want to make sure our associates have the first chance at getting these extra hours,” Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg said. “By and large, they can get up to 40 hours a week, but there may be times in some stores where folks end up working more than that.” (By law, Wal-Mart is required to pay its employees overtime if they work more than 40 hours a week.)

Economists and labor experts said the approach also made financial sense for Walmart, which has 1 million hourly workers at its U.S. stores. Even if the company ends up having to pay overtime to some of those employees, it probably will save thousands of dollars on recruiting, hiring and training a fleet of temporary workers.

“The first incentive for Wal-Mart is that they automatically increase their profits — it’s much cheaper to pay an existing employee than to hire and train new workers,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of consumer sciences at Purdue University. “Experienced employees are also more knowledgeable and effective than new hires, which means they’re getting greater productivity while also cutting costs.”

Some, though, raised concerns about the implications for workers.

“It’s a good sound bite, but we have to see what this means for workers and the wages they’re receiving,” said Randy Parraz, director of Making Change at Walmart, a campaign run by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “We’d like to see higher wages and more transparency around the program. It’s one thing to offer more hours. It’s another thing to mandate them.”

This summer, Wal-Mart announced that it would begin enlisting employees to deliver online orders on their way home from work as a way to earn extra money. The company — which last year reported $485.9 billion in revenue — also said it would raise its hourly minimum wage to $10 for most workers.

Janie Grice, who makes $13.50 an hour working at a Wal-Mart store in Marion, S.C., says she has been fighting for years to take on more work. Ideally, she says, she’d work 40 hours a week, but she often is scheduled for 28 hours. Lately, her schedule has been dwindling to 19 or 20 hours a week, she said.

“Pretty much from the beginning, I’ve told them I want to work full time,” said Grice, a single mother who has worked in the customer service department for four years. “Having those extra hours, especially during the holidays, means I could actually pay all of my bills.”

Jennifer Rodgers shares the frustration.

“I consistently only get 20 to 25 hours each week even though I have opened up my availability and am cross-trained to work in more than four departments,” said Rodgers, who works in the photo lab in a Wal-Mart store outside Atlanta. “If I made 40 hours each week during holiday time, the first thing I would do is pay my rent and buy Christmas gifts for my 8-year-old.”

Bhattarai writes for the Washington Post.