What It’s Like to Work in Walmart Hell

Thanks to recent teacher layoffs and the miserable job market, John Olympic has gone from substitute high-school teacher to Walmart associate.

Teaching gave me weekends off for more pleasurable activities like annoying the roommate’s cat or plucking my nipple hair. But this Sunday, I spent eight hours playing Avoid the Customer. It’s a challenging game in which, at the end of the day, I reward myself by not committing suicide.

Why do I play this game? Sanity. Last week, for example, I walked behind a middle-aged mother who, after ordering her kid to drop a toy in the hardware section, told him, “Don’t worry, they’ll pick it up.”

Customers may be the worst part of my job, but they’re not the only part of this gig that sucks.

See, like millions of Americans, I’m underemployed. The government doesn’t count people like me in its official unemployment numbers.

And those numbers are pretty grim; the national unemployment rate is at 9.6 percent, with 15 million Americans looking for work. I guess working at Walmart is better than nothing.

But working for low pay is about as rewarding as stabbing out your own eyeballs with a stale baguette. Fourteen billion dollars in profits last year bumped Walmart back on top of the Fortune 500 list, and the company keeps up those profits partly by paying associates as little as (legally) possible. Walmart wages are not only well below living wage, we’re paid significantly less than comparable jobs at other retailers.

But I don’t have children or major medical expenses, so I do OK with my pathetic paycheck. But several of my coworkers support spouses or children; one just told me he relies on government support to pay his bills, including child support.

My coworkers are a diverse mix. Many are immigrants with limited English skills. Others have college degrees and wound up at Walmart when the economy tanked.

Still others are well past retirement age, requiring canes or shopping carts to move around the store. Yet these are the people management sees fit to post at the front of the store for hours at a time as a shoplifting deterrent. (Did I say shoplifting deterrent? I meant “Store Greeter.”) I haven’t been at the store long enough to ask these sextegenerians (and well beyond) why they’re still working, but I’m guessing it’s not because they really, really, really like wearing blue. They’re probably like the growing number of seniors who have lost their retirement savings and are forced to work to keep their health benefits (if the store offers them any), and to keep themselves out of poverty. Hell of a way to spend your final years, demanding to check the receipt of every person walking out of the store.

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As diverse as Walmart associates are, we have at least one thing in common: When it comes to our jobs, we have no voice. Walmart is America’s largest private employer, yet the 1 million workers who put on that red, white, and blue nametag each week have zero collective bargaining power when it comes to our pay, benefits, or working conditions.

Walmart corporate policy remains fiercely anti-union. At my employee orientation, we were shown a video titled Protect Your Signature, a piece meant to frighten us away from even trying to organize a union. A Walmart document distributed to managers describes the types of employees attracted to unions. Among them, the “inefficient, low-productive associate,” the “rebellious, anti-establishment associate” and the “something-for-nothing associate.”

There are two instances, both in Canada, in which Walmart associates successfully joined a union. In both cases, Walmart decided to shut the store or the department where the workers decided to organize themselves.

And it’s demoralizing knowing that by working for Walmart, I’m sleeping with the enemy. Our clothing section is filled with goods sewn by third-world sweatshop workers earning pennies per hour. The toy section brims with petroleum-based products that will just end up in landfills a few months from now. There’s the in-store McDonald’s and its high-sugar, high-fat menu. There’s nothing—not a goddamn thing—about big-box retailers that makes the world better.

But one of the worst parts of my job is the one that makes it all possible: the customers, which brings me back to the Avoid the Customer game.

I didn’t always play this game. When first hired, I followed founder Sam Walton’s 10-foot rule: Whenever a customer wandered near me, I smiled, greeted them, and asked if there was anything I could do to help.

But that was before the guy who was looking for blenders in the garden section. Or the woman who left her half-finished generic soda sitting in the toy section. Or the guy who shoved another customer’s kid out of the way to pull a pillow off the rack. Or the guy who was pissed—pissed!—that the coffee filters were stocked next to the coffee machines. Or the woman who, after almost plowing me over with her shopping cart, laughed, “You can’t hit the help.”

Avoid the Customer mostly involves walking the least-trafficked routes through the store. When heading out to lunch, I take the path of least annoyance: through furniture, automotive and sporting goods. (No surprise on that one; many customers have at least one X on their clothing tags, due partly to the aisles and aisles of processed, low-nutrient junk food we gladly sell them.)

Next week, though, I’m adding a new trick: When asked for help, I’ll respond, “No hablo inglés.”

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Even my supervisors, whose qualifications generally include being white, male, and sporting unfortunate styles of facial hair, do their best to avoid the pawing hordes who make their miserable jobs possible. (Yeah, that class-action lawsuit alleging that Walmart promotes mostly men to management positions? Totally the case in my store.)

A couple of months ago, Consumers Digest ranked Walmart stores dead last in customer service among big-box retailers. So was it coincidence that Sunday I spent a half hour watching a training video on customer service?

I tried not to gnaw my arm off as Gas-X commercial rejects enacted examples of less- and more-effective customer service. Supposedly we’re not supposed to act as though customers are interrupting us from our endless tasks, even though that’s exactly what they do.

Walmart keeps hammering it into its associates that we’re here for the customers. Bullshit. I’m here for a shitty paycheck so I can buy beer and rehash the poor life decisions that brought me to Walmart in the first place.

Call me pessimistic, but any signs of economic recovery aren’t trickling down to my paycheck. My roommate just beat out 300 applicants to land his new job. Craigslist job postings are filled with scams. (Did I say scams? I meant “work-from-home opportunities.”)

But like I said, I should count my blessings. It is better than not having any job. And at least I don’t work in fast food.

Walmart is America: underpaid workers cleaning up after malnourished customers purchasing Chinese sweatshop goods.

This post originally appeared on AlterNet.org. Republished with permission.

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Read more Men at Work:

Dacus Thompson: Career Changers

Tim Donnelly: In Defense of Dating Your Coworker

Ted Cox: 11 Rules for Working Out of a Coffee Shop

Brian Stuart: Working for the Woman

Hugo Schwyzer: The Myth of Male Inflexibility

Mark Oppenheimer: Life Lessons From My Alcoholic Boss

John Olympic: What It’s Like to Work in Walmart Hell

Tom Matlack: The Illusion of Success

Morra Aarons-Mele: How to Work From Home

Ryan O’Hanlon: Meet America’s Oldest Minor Leaguer

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Comments

  1. I hear ya about working in Walmart hell. Been there, done that. I was an IT Manager by day for a small drafting company, barely scraping by, so I took a p/t job at Walmart to help ease the burden. I think they took a small part of my soul. I ran an IT Dept by day, and changed oil and tires by night and weekends.

    I was lucky enough to work in the automotive section with some pretty decent guys, and didn’t have to interact with customers much since I spent most of my time in the shop. I did spend my time on the floor playing avoid-the-customer though, so I feel your pain.

    The anti-union bit bothered me a lot. I grew up in mining towns that always had a strong union presence, so the power of the union was ingrained in me from an early age. While I don’t think the propaganda is quite as blatantly anti-union here in Canada, it is an attitude that is still very much alive and part of the Walmart culture.

    Hang in there and keep rewarding yourself at the end of each day by not committing suicide and you’ll pull through.

  2. “Our clothing section is filled with goods sewn by third-world sweatshop workers earning pennies per hour.”

    Thanks for not leaving out this part about the goods being manufactured in sweatshops.

  3. Gee, this sort of explains why when I asked a clerk if they carried any Passover items, because I couldn’t find them (not that I expected to–but I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask) she suggested that I should try the Hobby Lobby.

  4. That’s why I only go to Wal-Mart for food, mostly Haagen-Daz and Naked Juice, because I know these are American made products. I make it a point to buy America (which includes shopping on-line) to avoid exploiting some poor factory workers in China or Cambodia. I’m the kind of customer who looks at miserable employees and thinks to myself, ‘I feel tempted to let them rant about their shitty jobs, but their two million bosses they have could be hiding anywhere.’ I’ve never worked at Wal-Mart, but I can totally sympathize with a job like that.

    • All workers are exploited. Even unionized American workers. Some just more than others. And, “American made” might mean no labor even used to make product, since robotics are replacing human labor by the millions. Even in China!

  5. Prunella says:

    I’m amazed that you, having had a career as a professional, could even get a job at WalMart. I tried when I was unemployed and they wouldn’t even consider me.

  6. Wow, I’ve read so many bad reviews about Wal-Mart. Mostly I think you’re all disgruntled lazy workers that wanted to get paid to do absolutely nothing. I mean i am a Wal-Mart Associate and I don’t mind it at all. Sure it has it’s downside, but if you shut up and do your job, you’re fine. The fact you play “dodge the customer” proves how lazy you really are,and that you don’t belong anywhere near retail. you can’t deal with the ppl, get an office job. And other retailers are MUCH worse than Wal Mart, believe me! I worked for Sears and Carson pirie Scott. Both of THEM mistreated their employees. I made maybe 20 hours a week at Sears and MAYBE 16 at Carsons. At Carson’s, I became pregnant and they cut my hours to 5 a week because I had to sit down for 5 minutes every 3 hours (by doctors orders) otherwise I got too worn out and weak. But after that, I was FINE. At Sears, they closed down my location and fired 95 percent of all the workers. Meaning, on the last day we were open, they told us we could never work for Sears or Kmart ever again for the rest of our lives. And we weren’t lazy ass ppl either. Most of us busted our butts for that company for years just to be cut off. Finally when I got to Walmart, I have 32 hours a week working in apparel. I’m still pregnant and I am able to have job protection when I have my baby. I have a chance to be promoted, and I finally have benefits. If you want to whine about how horrible Wal-Mart is, try working those retailers and then tell me what you think.

  7. And don’t forget about those cds that are edited. I mean, ALL the cds. Have you ever seen a Green Day cd in Walmart? Thats because Green Day will not be censored. So, they don’t sell in Walmart stores.
    If you want a cd that might have bad words in it, don’t buy it at Walmart!!!! I didn’t know this until I bought a Timbaland cd, and listened to it thinking “what the heck is this?”

  8. the punisher says:

    YEAH,I KNOW WHAT EVERYONE MEANS ABOUT WALMART. I DONT KNOW WHATS MORE PITIFUL THE PEOPLE THAT SHOP THERE OR WORK THERE.

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