Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.
--Daniel Patrick Moynihan

June 21, 2011

Working Near Poverty at Wal-Mart

 By David K. Shipler

The Supreme Court’s decision that female employees of Wal-Mart did not have enough in common to be certified as a class in a discrimination lawsuit took me back some years, to conversations I had with Caroline Payne, who worked at Wal-Mart and elsewhere. Here is an excerpt from my book The Working Poor.

The new millennium arrived in a crescendo of American riches. The nation wallowed in luxury, burst with microchips, consumed with abandon, swaggered globally. Everything grew larger: homes, vehicles, stock portfolios, life expectancy. Never before in the sweep of human history had so many people been so utterly comfortable.

Caroline Payne was not one of them. A few weeks after New Year’s Day, she sat at her kitchen table and reflected on her own history.
 Two of her three goals had been achieved: She had earned a college diploma, albeit just a two-year associate’s degree. And she had gone from a homeless shelter into her own house, although it was mostly owned by a bank. The third objective, “a good paying job,” as she put it, still eluded her. Back in the mid-1970s, she earned $6 an hour in a Vermont factory that made plastic cigarette lighters and cases for Gillette razors. In 2000, she earned $6.80 an hour stocking shelves and working cash registers at a vast Wal-Mart superstore in New Hampshire.
“And that’s sad,” she declared. “I got thinking about that the other day. I’m only making eighty cents more than I did more than twenty years ago.” Or less, taking into account the rise in the cost of living. And she did not know then how much sadder it would become.

Caroline’s was the forgotten story of prosperity in America. With indifference, the economic boom at the turn of the century passed her by. The reasons were not obvious, but they were insidious. She was not the victim of racial discrimination—she was white. She was not lazy—she was caustic about colleagues and relatives who were. She was punctual, rarely out sick, willing to do night shifts, and assiduous in her work habits. The Wal-Mart manager, Mark Brown, called her “a nice lady” with lots of enthusiasm. “She’s self-driven,” he observed. “She’s always willing to learn and better herself. She’s got potential. She can definitely move up.”

But she did not move up. She had never moved up. And that ceased to amaze her, it had been going on for so long, in job after job after job. She was astonished only by Mark Brown’s praise. “I’m surprised,” she remarked when I told her what he had said. She was stacking blank video tapes on a shelf. “I didn’t think they liked me here. People don’t usually say nice things about me.”

Somewhere along this track that leads nowhere, a good many Americans give up on the dream. They sink back onto welfare, or they stop imagining themselves as foremen or department heads or office managers. Caroline was fifty, with so many years of disappointment that her moments of despair seemed quite reasonable. She had been treated occasionally for depression, and she once tried to commit suicide with an overdose of aspirin. Still, she kept striving. She called herself “luckylady” in her e-mail address. She said, “Have a wonderful day” on her answering machine. She did not have big thoughts about corporate profits or dark judgments about society’s unfairness; she just tried for basic financial security. Her persistence seemed so incongruous that it played like a dissonant melody against the monotone of job stagnation. Again and again, she applied to manage one sales department or another at the store, and again and again she was passed over in favor of men—or, she observed wryly, women who were younger and slimmer.

“I work my butt off, excuse my language. I’m there most of the time,” she said sharply, “but that don’t matter to them.” She was paid a dollar an hour more during nighttime shifts, nothing close to what her flexibility was worth to a store that stayed open around the clock. Trying to get ahead, she was always available to change hours and fill in, even during evenings when she had to leave her fourteen-year-old daughter, Amber, home alone. Without a car, Caroline had a twenty-minute walk each way, trekking back and forth at odd times of night in all kinds of weather. One cold February day, walking gingerly along icy streets to save her temperamental back, she trudged from her house to her job at her normal time of 10 a.m., only to be told to come for a shift beginning at 1 p.m. instead. So she made her way home and then returned to the store: three trips consuming one hour before earning her first dime of the day. This she did willingly—even after the store had hired a man, whom she knew, at a wage higher than hers. “He’s working in electronics at night, but you go in and he’s standing around looking at them TVs or doing something else,” she said in a soft whine. “He doesn’t keep busy or do anything, and they don’t say nothing. And I’ve complained about it, and I’ve been practically told to mind my own business.”

Nor could she compete with the slender women, who received flirtatious attention from the assistant manager. “You notice a lot of these young girls get these jobs,” Caroline declared. “My age shows on me terribly. I’ve had people think that I’m Amber’s grandmother, I’ve had such a hard life.”

The people who got promotions tended to have something that Caroline did not. They had teeth. Caroline did not have teeth. If she had, she would not have looked ten years older than she was. But her teeth had succumbed to poverty, to the years when she could not afford a dentist.
. . .

Anyone who walked all the way around the outside of the Wal-Mart superstore on Route 103 would walk a mile, Caroline said. The place was immense. It sold everything from lawn mowers to ground beef, underpricing smaller stores that were struggling to survive in the center of town. Its 300 to 330 employees, who came and went seasonally, wore Wal-Mart’s uniform of blue smocks and friendly smiles, trained as they were to be surprisingly helpful to customers.

Mark Brown, the manager, could pay his people more without raising prices, he conceded. He sat at a table in the store’s snack bar, watching the part of the grocery section he could see, listening to the public address system’s calls for help at the registers, his eyes darting around this corner of his fiefdom like a school principal waiting for the next catastrophe. He was thirty-one, but he looked as young as a college kid and spoke with the twang of his native southeast Missouri. He had come from another store in Georgia and was learning to ski here in New Hampshire.

His employees started at $6.25 an hour, earned an extra dollar at night and another 25 cents “for going to the front end,” which meant working one of the twenty-four cash registers. And if he started them at $8 an hour, say, instead of $6.25, how would that change the economics of the store? “Hmmm. I don’t think it would change at all.” He wouldn’t have to raise prices? “No. We’ve got a corporate pricing structure. And the way we do things, we go out and we check our competition every single week. Every department manager in this store goes out once a week and checks competition, and that’s what determines our prices. We have a core price structure that we set regionally, by areas. Definitely the base price here would be probably higher than what it is in Arkansas, where there’s a cheap cost of living. So it would be higher here, but it would still be standard to this area. And then after they give us that base, then we go out and check our competition, and if we’re gettin’ beat, we lower our prices.”

So there’s enough profit to absorb an increase from $6.25 to $8? “There would be, because if we were having to raise our wages, then evidently everybody else would be too, and if we make sure we’re low enough, our competitors’ customers are gonna shop with us.” Would wage increases have any effect at all? “We’d have to cut corners on other things like, you know, we may not be able to put all the pretty balloons up all over the store. The non-necessities we’d have to cut back on.”

Three days later, Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. announced a net income of $5.58 billion for 1999, up 26 percent from the previous year.

Caroline was bouncing from one department to another, from one shift to another, but her pay stayed within a narrow range, beginning at $6.25, going to $6.80, sometimes up to $7.50 if she worked at night. So unpredictable were her hours that she couldn’t work a second job, which would have helped her cash flow. She kept applying for higher positions and kept hearing that she needed a bit more experience.

“I did make Cashier of the Month for November,” she reported happily. “I’ve collected over fifteen hundred dollars for the World War II veterans memorial in Washington. That’s what got me Cashier of the Month.” She also persuaded customers who checked out at her register to buy a total of seventy-two tickets to a Bruins game in Boston to raise money for the Claremont fire department, and that won her a weekend getaway from Pepsi. She could take herself and three other people to a paid stay in any Marriott she chose, anywhere. “But I have to get there,” she said. That was the catch. So it was going to have to be nearby, someplace that somebody would drive her. Hawaii never entered her mind, not even New York; she considered only places in New Hampshire. “I think there’s one up here in Lebanon,” she said. “If I could get somebody to take me to Manchester, Amber likes to look at the malls. I’ve never been down there. Just to look at things.” In the end, Caroline, Amber, a friend of Caroline’s, and her child drove north to a hotel in Bethlehem, New Hampshire, where they visited a small shopping center in North Conway.
. . .

Wal-Mart had such a big turnover of personnel that Mark Brown didn’t feel comfortable saying how high it ran. But he was clear about the reasons in the years of prosperity. “A lot of it I think has to do with the fact that our economy’s so strong today. You could go anywhere in this town, anywhere outside of town, and you see the signs, ‘Now Hiring, Now Hiring.’ I mean, if they’re not treated right, all they got to do is just walk out the door. It’s very competitive, very competitive.” So Wal-Mart tried to hold people by providing them with a share of the company’s profits. Eighty percent came in stock, the rest in cash, maintained in an account in which an employee began to be vested after a year, and was fully vested after seven.

But this enticement was not working for Caroline. She had taken out a second mortgage, for $19,000, to replace her roof, doors, and windows, and she needed money now. “The way they schedule your hours,” she said, “sometimes it’s ten to seven, sometimes it’s nine to four, sometimes it’s seven to four, sometimes you work later in the evenings, and you never know what day. You don’t always have the same two days off. Like I was supposed to have last Sunday off because of Amber’s recital. I asked for it off. Well, I got home and later that night there was a message on my phone: ‘Can you please come to work for awhile?’ I did. I did. It was overtime. I never said no to them. But why couldn’t they have the decency to pay me a little bit more?”

That was the way the store treated “associates” when the economy was booming. In more depressed parts of the country and during recessions, however, some Wal-Mart managers were accused of forcing employees to work before punching in or after punching out to avoid paying overtime as required by law.
. . .

Caroline never had the overtime problem in her New Hampshire store, but in six Southern states employees filed a class-action suit against the company for ordering them off the clock as their weekly time approached forty hours. Their attorney calculated the benefits to the firm: If each of 250 hourly-wage “associates” in a single store worked just one hour of unpaid overtime a week, that would total 250 unpaid hours a week, 1,000 a month, 12,000 a year—and there were over 300 Wal-Mart stores in Texas, producing savings in that state alone of more than $30-million that should have been paid to employees.

Caroline did not suffer from any violations of law, as far as she could tell, but her career went nowhere. Mark Brown, the manager who liked her, got transferred to Pennsylvania, dimming her prospects for advancement. So after a year and a half at Wal-Mart, she signed up with a temp agency, which found her a $7.50-an-hour, daytime job Monday through Friday assembling wallpaper sample books. And she had the pleasure of telling Wal-Mart’s assistant manager that she was leaving for higher pay.

“I’m just hoping they’ll be sorry someday,” Caroline said.

“Because they don’t know who they’re missing,” Amber added. “She’s such a nice mom, and she’s pretty cool.”


  1. It was great and very interesting topic. Thank you for sharing this. Nice Blogs!

  2. Sorry to be off topic...is there an email to reach you at?

    I wanted to compliment you on your NY Times Op-Ed.

  3. Jeff, thanks. If you'll write another comment including your e-mail address, I won't post it for the world to see but will contact you. Cheers.

  4. Hi Dave
    I run a nonprofit organization serving low-income women and I want to understand the issues of poverty beyond my own experience. Any reading suggestions - in addition to your own book of course! I know the issue is complicated and the causes deeply interconnected. Most days I feel we are treating the symptoms instead of curing the disease...

  5. Jeri, I'm not sure what you're looking for--so much has been written on this--but you might want to check out books Katherine Newman, a scholar who humanizes the issues very well. Also Beth Shulman has written from a labor union perspective. Robert Lerman at the Urban Institute has done interesting work on housing programs and vocational education. The institute's site is a gold mine of papers by various specialists--lots of data and sound analysis. I've heard others say the same thing that you say about treating only the symptoms, which can make the work frustrating and exhausting. I don't know that the disease can be cured--or even ameliorated--without substantial societal commitment. That has to mean government programs much more extensive and imaginative than now exist. Obviously that's not likely in the current political and economic situation.

  6. Do you know what happened to Caroline Payne? Where is she now? Did her life improve at all with the downturn of the economy since 2004?

  7. I was wondering the same thing. I was in tears reading your article. Whatever happened to Caroline?