True Story: I Worked at Walmart

Walmartnomics bubbled up in the blogosphere again last week, with Bloomberg’s Megan McArdle leading the conversation on why Wal-Mart pays its employees less than stores like Costco (more from McArdle here and here). I’ve written about Wal-Mart and the minimum wage before, but what I didn’t mention is this: many years ago, I wore a blue vest emblazoned with “How May I Help You?”

Back around the turn of the millennium, I was a teenager who was desperate for gas money. I’d gotten a tip from a friend who worked at Wal-Mart that it “totally wasn’t as bad as you think,” so I put on the Standard Late-90s Midwestern Business Casual Outfit (button down, khakis that may have had cargo pockets, and Doc Martens. Always Doc Martens), walked up to the customer service desk, and asked for an application. A week later, I was wearing the iconic blue smock.

Working at Wal-Mart for a year taught me a few things that are missing from the stories about minimum wage or Wal-Mart vs. Local Government. The wages were actually better than many people assume. Child labor rules offered a mixed bag of results, depending on the employee’s situation. And the notion that the company makes its billions on the backs of poor workers strikes me even today as terribly uninformed.

Let’s talk about Wal-Mart wages. Yes, I started at a crap wage of $6.25/hour (about $8.50 in today’s dollars), which was a considerable boost from the $5.15 minimum wage I had been making in the fast food industry before that (there aren’t many well-remunerated opportunities for teenagers, a fact that “living-wage” advocates ought to keep in mind). There’s a reason starting wages are called “starting wages.” During twelve months of incredibly half-assed effort, I received three separate raises for achievements like:

  • Showing up and not quitting (i.e. the standard 90-day review)
  • Participating in new employee training
  • A little award called STAR CASHIER OF THE MONTH. NBD, yo, though they gave me a maroon vest like this.

By the time I left, I was making close to $8.50 an hour ($11.22 in 2013 dollars). If that doesn’t sound like much to you, consider that the average rent in that town today is about $650, with plenty of apartments in the $400-500 range. People who earn a living writing opinion pieces on the Internet often forget that there’s a huge middle section of the country where living is cheap.

Wal-Mart’s working conditions were a mixed bag. My manager tried to schedule me, a high school sophomore, for 35 hours my first week, extracurricular activities and, you know, being sixteen be damned. (Mama Merryweather, in a rare moment of awesomeness, called to politely explain to him that once I hit 20 hours, I’d be “taking the rest of the week off”). Otherwise, management was downright anal about making sure everybody under 18 was clocked out by 10:30 PM, was taking breaks, and wasn’t doing overtime. In fact, shortly before I left, the store implemented a new policy of not hiring anyone under 18. While I liked having time after work for a few high school shenanigans before curfew, a few of my underage co-workers weren’t in any position to have their hours reduced. Rules like this are intended to protect students and their grades, but sadly, some kids are more worried about helping their alcoholic parents pay bills than getting into college.

The most eye-opening part of my year at Wally World was being exposed to adults who were very different from any that I’d known in my life. Like, I’m-50-and-I-harass-teenage-girls-, I’ve-been-in-prison-, or I-have-a-meth-problem-different. To put it in perspective, when I was sixteen, most of the people over 30 I’d ever had a conversation with were either teachers, family members, or my parents’ friends. For every high school kid working at Wal-Mart, there were several workers in their 30s and 40s on the floor or the stockroom. Some were longtime “lifers,” and they got perks – better schedules, higher pay, the ability to move into different departments or roles. But most of the non-student adults I worked with seemed to leave as quickly as they arrived, presumably in pursuit of better opportunities (and at least once for a jail sentence). My point is that for most employees, not just the teenagers and college students, Wal-Mart was not a long-term job.

The company’s turnover rate is around 70%. You could argue that low wages cause high turnover, but it’s not clear to me why anybody should spend a decade or longer cashiering at Wal-Mart (or McDonalds, or anywhere else) instead of taking incrementally better jobs and expanding their skill sets. People take jobs with Wal-Mart for hundreds of different, personal reasons, such as:

  • your student aid doesn’t cover living expenses over the summer
  • your seasonal job (construction, landscaping, teaching) is over for a few months
  • you’re changing careers and don’t want a big gap in your work history
  • your eBay business selling pop culture collectibles is going to take off any day now
  • your spouse is on temporary disability
  • your kids have started school and you want to go back to work part-time

The key thing for Wal-Mart critics to remember is that for most people, Wal-Mart is a starting point in the labor force, not an end point.