When Wal-Mart Comes To Town, What Does It Mean For Workers? : The Salt Wal-Mart has long been criticized for low pay and erratic work schedules. So when the retailer arrives in a community, it stirs controversy — but it also brings jobs and low prices.
NPR logo

When Wal-Mart Comes To Town, What Does It Mean For Workers?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/396892753/396976036" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When Wal-Mart Comes To Town, What Does It Mean For Workers?

When Wal-Mart Comes To Town, What Does It Mean For Workers?

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/396892753/396976036" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


When I was growing up, I lived in a big city suburb. It was just a few miles' drive from downtown. But it was a big deal, a big leap when we got a chance to go downtown. Everything felt different there.


That is exactly the leap that the world's largest retailer has made in recent years. Wal-Mart made its name by spreading out of Arkansas into small towns and suburbs across America. Doing business in city centers was different.

INSKEEP: And it was only in recent years that Wal-Mart arrived in places like the one we will visit next - central Washington, D.C. Move around the U.S. capital these days and you see all the familiar landmarks - the Supreme Court, Union Station, the Smithsonian and Wal-Mart.

MONTAGNE: Wal-Mart is such a huge company. It buys so much, sells so much and employs so many that it's arrival changes a community. That's one reason it draws criticism. Our colleague David Greene has been in the aisles of a Wal-Mart in the nation's capital. He spoke with NPR's Jennifer Ludden and Yuki Noguchi.



GREENE: So two new stores have already opened in Washington. They were opened in December of 2013 over the objections, we should say, of a lot of city politicians who said Wal-Mart just does not pay its employees enough. What has happened since then?

NOGUCHI: So Wal-Mart opened only after it defeated a bill that would have required big retailers and only big retailers to pay a higher minimum wage. But since that bill failed, the city raised minimum wages for all employers in the city. So that enabled opponents of the Wal-Mart to claim at least partial victory. I talked to City Councilman Vincent Orange. He co-sponsored both the bill to raise the minimum wage that large retailers would have paid, which failed, and the subsequent general minimum wage hike, which succeeded. And he pretty much stands behind Wal-Mart now.

VINCENT ORANGE: I was never really against Wal-Mart. I was against the wages that they were paying.

NOGUCHI: While that's true, he says it's better, on balance, to have those jobs. You've seen a very similar drama unfold in Chicago, were politicians that opposed Wal-Mart there have also kind of similarly come around.

GREENE: Come around - you know, softening their criticism and also in some cases probably actually shopping there. I mean, that's one thing we've seen in the story of Wal-Mart over the years - that sometimes there'll be opponents who actually, you know, end up shopping there. And Wal-Mart is making the point here in Washington that they are doing good things for the community. Is there a way to measure whether that's true?

NOGUCHI: Wal-Mart says that these stores have met their traffic expectations. It says the stores contribute $6 million in tax revenue every year. And it currently employs 700 people in the city, mostly D.C. residents. And they say that it's brought down the cost of shopping in the city.

GREENE: You talk about the number of people who work there. And we should say there have been some worker protests since the opening. And our colleague Jennifer Ludden is going to talk about that in a minute. But, Yuki, you did speak with a few members of the community who remain not so happy about this.

NOGUCHI: Yeah, that's right. I interviewed Reverend Graylan Hagler, a longtime community activist and pastor at the Plymouth Congregational Church. Hagler is a very striking person. He's tall, has a salt-and-pepper beard and wears a black beret. He's always saluting people. And he shakes hands with these young men who call out to him as we cross the street.

So there are going to be three Wal-Marts in close proximity to Hagler's church - the two you already mentioned plus another one that's just a half a mile from his church. He took me to one of those stores still under construction. I asked him whether Wal-Mart addressed some of his concerns about employment and community impact since the stores have opened.

REVEREND GRAYLAN HAGLER: It has actually really confirmed my suspicion.

NOGUCHI: Hagler believes the city struck a bad bargain with the retailer by not holding out for higher-paying employers and making too many concessions.

HAGLER: Wal-Mart is saying, well, city didn't give us anything. Well, that's a lie. We have reconfigured all these streets to accommodate the development.

NOGUCHI: And to illustrate how this played out, we drove up to another store on Georgia Avenue, a mile to the west.

HAGLER: We've done the same type of pattern here. You got a massive garage in the back.

NOGUCHI: There, there's a dedicated underground parking lot labeled Wal-Mart parking. Meanwhile, the on-street parking that used to exist in front of the businesses across the street is now a no parking zone.

HAGLER: And so as you can see, at the city's expense we widened the street to accommodate the cars, took away parking, which is surely - is damaging to these businesses.

NOGUCHI: And so we drop in on one those businesses - a classic barbershop with those black leather seats.


NOGUCHI: Demitrius Redmond is a longtime barber embittered about Wal-Mart's entry.

REDMOND: And, like, this gentleman has his wheelchair right here. He has to call me, and I have to have someone come around the corner, go down the street to get him, to push him up this hill because it's so challenging.

NOGUCHI: But of course, David, I talked to the elected neighborhood liaison there, a woman named Brenda Parks. And she calls that Wal-Mart a great success. She says it draws traffic and revenue from nearby Maryland residents. And she's talked to residents who were against the store coming in before who have changed their minds. And they like especially having a new grocery store option.

GREENE: All right - talking to NPR's Yuki Noguchi about the arrival of Wal-Mart here in the city of Washington, D.C. The company's increasingly coming into urban environments. Yuki, thanks a lot.

GREENE: Now let's bring in another voice here. NPR's Jennifer Ludden has been spending time with people who work in urban Wal-Marts here in Washington, D.C. As Wal-Mart moves into big urban environments like Washington, like Chicago, like Los Angeles, it creates jobs. People are going to work there. But those jobs and what they pay have created some controversy. And, Jennifer, welcome. Let's talk about this.

JENNIFER LUDDEN, BYLINE: Hi, David. So when Wal-Mart came to Washington, D.C., there were 23,000 people who applied for jobs there.


LUDDEN: I met one of them - Earnest Reed (ph). He's a Washington, D.C. native. He says he had never stepped foot in a Wal-Mart before he applied for a job there. He remembered he'd been out of work for two years. He was thinking, hey, any wage is better than no wage. Just let me get my foot in the door. I'm going to work my way up. And that is what he's done.

EARNEST REED: Let's see what our truck looks like here today.

LUDDEN: Just three months after he started, Earnest Reed was promoted to supervisor of the back room where deliveries are unloaded. He inspects a truck packed tight.

REED: Oh, wow. This is a beauty.

LUDDEN: He is 62 years old, tall, energetic, charismatic. He works full time. Now, that means a quarterly bonus, health care and even for the first time in his life, he says, he has a retirement plan.

REED: Wonderful. I love it. They match you dollar-for-dollar on their 401(k) plan. If I put in a hundred dollars, they match me $100. And the benefits are so plentiful. I have so many benefit packages that come to my house from Wal-Mart. It's unbelievable.

LUDDEN: Now, Reed wears this navy, knit wool cap that has the company's logo right across the front.

REED: I can walk out the store right now, and I guarantee you someone will say, man, do they have any openings, man? Are they hiring? I get this every day. Somebody's looking for a job at Wal-Mart.

LUDDEN: David, Earnest Reed says he loves working at Wal-Mart so much he plans to stay until he retires. But of course, not every employee is so positive.

GREENE: Well, let's hear about that because I know for years, we've heard about worker strikes, these campaigns demanding better conditions for people who work at Wal-Mart. Are there people who are making that case now, here?

LUDDEN: Absolutely. We've had protests at one of the Wal-Marts in Washington, D.C. There are people here who still think the company doesn't treat its workers well enough. I met a woman who works in Northern Virginia, just outside D.C. She's been with a Wal-Mart there for one year and has been an activist there, has gone on strike. Fatimah Dejabi (ph) is 21. She's a single mother with two toddlers. A cashier, she makes $8.80 an hour. Now, she says her hours are just all over the place - morning one day, night shift the next. She says it makes it really hard to arrange childcare and impossible to get a second job. But mostly, she complains that she can't get enough hours, even though she's repeatedly asked to be made full-time.

FATIMAH DEJABI: So let me say I expect 30 hours this week. And then they send you something like, oh, go check your schedule. They probably drop it to 20, 26. It happened to me, too. I will have no hours for a week.

LUDDEN: None at all?


LUDDEN: Now, a Wal-Mart spokesperson says the company does plan to make schedules more predictable and also points out that even part-timers at Wal-Mart get some benefits although they don't get sick days and not health care. Employees have to average 30 hours a week to get health care, and cashier Dejabi does not. She also told me she can't make ends meet without public assistance.

DEJABI: I have to get childcare assistance, and I have to get housing help. Wal-Mart - the money I'm getting for is nothing - only go to my rent and my utility bills. I can't buy food with my Wal-Mart money. I have to wait for my food stamp in order to buy food.

GREENE: Jennifer, the Wal-Mart spokesperson said they're trying to make schedules more predictable. But besides that, I mean, is the company addressing these other types of complaints?

LUDDEN: Actually, just recently they have said they are going to raise the minimum wage they pay to $9 an hour this year, $10 an hour next year. Now, Fatimah Dejabi says she's very happy about that. She feels that is a response to the pressure that activists like herself have put on the company. A Wal-Mart spokesperson, Amanda Henneberg also says the company is going to expand opportunities to advance.

AMANDA HENNEBERG: If an associate knows they want to move up to a certain position, they're going to be able to have specific training for that position. It's kind of more of a mentor-type program. So it'll be a great opportunity for them.

GREENE: OK. A voice there from a Wal-Mart spokesperson. We heard from Wal-Mart employees. We heard from politicians, just getting a sense for what it has meant for the city of Washington, D.C., and the surrounding areas to have more Wal-Marts arriving in a type of urban environment that Wal-Mart didn't used to come to. NPR's Jennifer Ludden, thanks a lot.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

INSKEEP: We're hearing elsewhere in today's program about Wal-Mart's political influence. Indiana recently passed a much-debated religious freedom law. Arkansas did not. Governor Asa Hutchinson said he wants the legislature to change that bill which critics say could be turned against gays and lesbians. The governor said he wants to ensure Arkansas is known as a state that does not discriminate. Surely, the governor had many reasons for his decision. But it was widely noted that the business community opposed the bill. One vocal opponent was Wal-Mart, the state's most famous company.

Copyright © 2015 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.