Medium: Retail Isn’t Working For People Like Me. Here’s How We Can Do Better

Originally published 11/14/2017

When I first started working at a Walmart in South Philadelphia, I couldn’t wait. It was my first real job out of school, and felt like a place where I was trusted to take on a lot of responsibility.

As a stocker, I kept track of the inventory coming in and out of the dairy department, unloaded trucks, and managed both helping customers and keeping the shelves full. I also made sure the temperature stayed even and that groceries stayed clean and presentable.

For the first few weeks, the job fulfilled my expectations. For the first time in my life, I felt like part of a team, and I knew my coworkers could trust me and lean on me to do the job right.

But the feeling it didn’t last. I got my first hint that something was wrong when I asked for some rest after a full day of lifting heavy boxes. Not only did I not get a break — I was criticized for even asking.

It didn’t take long to realize I wasn’t alone. Everyone at Walmart was working themselves to the bone. Associates stayed until midnight even when they had children back home, taking three or four buses or trains home, panicking when they missed the last bus.

But maybe worst of all, my coworkers weren’t killing themselves to get a promotion. They were doing it virtually to get by.

Most Walmart associates work part-time, variable hours. From one week to the next, you could work anywhere from just a few hours to a nearly full-time week. Our managers controlled our time, and it was clear that a “promotion” just meant you would be rewarded with more stable hours every week, which made it easier to plan the rest of your life around your work time. What it didn’t mean: higher pay, better benefits, or more opportunity.

Soon, I fell into the same trap. A new manager was hired, and my hours started to go haywire. Where other associates worked a shift from 7am — 4pm, I would be asked to close the store daily, working until past 10pm at night. I wouldn’t know my hours until Sunday night, ensuring that every week, I’d need to turn my plans upside down. I couldn’t see my friends, take night classes, or even have time to look for a second job.

In effect, I was being asked to accept hours that threw the rest of my life into jeopardy in the faint hope that one day the job would improve. It was a vicious cycle.

I thought it couldn’t get worse — until I became pregnant with my first child. Knowing I’d need to save up for after the birth, I worked through my pregnancy.

I clearly remember one Sunday on the first of the month, usually the busiest day when many customers received their food stamps. I was eight months pregnant and scheduled to close again. No customers had come in all day, then suddenly, at 6pm, customer traffic spiked. Groceries disappeared off the shelves and spilled on to the floor, boxes were hauled in by the dozen and frantically unpacked. By the end of the night, I could barely stand up.

Since I had worked so hard through my pregnancy — and had been at Walmart for nearly three years — I thought my managers would allow me to adjust my schedule after having my baby. The opposite happened.

When I asked to adjust my schedule to both work and take care of my child, my hours were cut drastically. Without warning, I went from 32 hours per week to eight, which cut my take home pay by 75 percent. When I reached out to my manager, they told me that having a child was not an excuse to ask for changes to my hours.

I had little choice but to leave and try to look for a better opportunity. Today, I’m hoping to go back to a new job in retail and find a new team.

But when I do, I’ll be back at the starting point.

Walmart was supposed to be a path to opportunity for me, but it provided little in the way of training or other means to climb up the career ladder. We were provided with training, to be sure, but it was rudimentary, consisting of a few hours of tutorials on the nuts and bolts of the job — how to operate a mailer, how to turn on machines and fix them if they malfunction.

While I was at the job, Walmart initiated a new program called Walmart Academy, intended to provide employees with more advanced skills, but I saw little evidence of it while there. I saw promotion of the Academy just once — when company management was filming a commercial for it during a shift.

But even if we received adequate training, it wouldn’t amount to much without predictable, stable, full-time hours, an adequate wage, and a chance to earn a real promotion — not one that simply rescued us from an impossible part-time treadmill. Ensuring these things for all employees would allow us to better serve customers and stay with the company for the long-term.

I get nervous this time of year thinking about Black Friday and the stress many of my fellow retail workers will need to undergo over the next few months. It doesn’t have to be this way. Retail can be a pathway to a better life for people like me. We just have to demand jobs that treat employees with respect and provide us with the skills to create a better future.

Kingia Phillips is a former stocker at Walmart and a member of OUR Walmart