“The White House Summit on Working Families Needs to Hear Worker Voices”–A Guest Blog by OUR Walmart Member Bene’t Holmes

Bene't Holmes (Right)

Bene’t Holmes (Right)

As a 25 year old single mother I know the realities of trying to survive on low wages. I live with my five-year old son in Chicago and I work for Walmart, the world’s largest private employer and a company that made over $16 billion in profits last year.  In the nine short months I have worked for the giant retailer, my heartbreaking experiences have driven me to take action and stand up for pregnant and working mothers.

I work hard every day in hopes of a better life for me and my family. Achieving the American dream, while working at Walmart is nearly impossible. I have four family members who either still work or have worked for Walmart and all of us have been left wanting jobs with an employer that values our work, respects our voice, and provides real opportunity to earn a living. I have firsthand knowledge of how difficult it is being stuck in a cycle of low wages and unstable schedules that prevent me and other workers from getting ahead and being independent.

I struggle to take care of my family on the poverty wages I earn working for Walmart. I work full-time and make under $9 an hour, which comes out to only about $15,000 a year. Because of my low wages, I cannot afford a home for my family and must rely on others to survive. Despite my best efforts to be financially independent, I recently had to apply for food stamps. And that is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my struggles working for Walmart.

In February of this year, I suffered one of the most devastating losses of my life. I was four months pregnant when I asked my manager for job duties that were less physically demanding.  I knew that the work I was performing was putting excessive strain on my body. Even though a doctor said I needed to work light duty, my manager denied my request and the next day I had a miscarriage while at work.

I asked for a leave of absence after the miscarriage to recover and was denied that request as well. To add insult to injury, my managers attempted to discipline me for my absences. Besides feeling betrayed by Walmart I questioned how a company that champions family could be so cold and heartless when one of its own employees is dealing with a tragedy.

I had to act—no woman should ever be put in that position again. I used my story to speak out and empower other women. I found out about the associate-led Organization United for Respect (OUR) Walmart and fought to have my leave approved. Working with OUR Walmart, my request was eventually granted and all disciplinary actions against me were dropped. Building on that momentum, I became involved with the “Respect the Bump” campaign to ensure that all pregnant women at Walmart are able to get light duty when they need it.

The White House Summit on Working Families needs to hear our voices. Millions of workers, especially working women, have stories similar to mine. They are trapped in a cycle of low wage jobs with unpredictable hours that make it difficult to raise a family. My hope is this event will help elevate the ongoing national conversation about making today’s workplaces better for everyone, including working mothers like me.

I believe the work I am doing through OUR Walmart will bring about needed change at my company. Obviously, more can be done to better the lives and circumstances of working women and their families. The White House Summit on Working Families is the perfect place to highlight and advance this effort.

Bene’t is traveling to Washington, D.C., to attend the White House Summit on Working Families. The Summit will be held on June 23 and is hosted by the Center for American Progress, partnered with the White House, and the U.S. Department of Labor.


Demos Report: Walmart Would Benefit From a Higher Wage

Demos, a think tank based in New York City, this week released an updated version of its 2013 report on the feasibility of raising the wages of Walmart employees to at least $25,000 a year. A $25K annual wage has been a commonly-quoted figure when discussing the wages of Walmart employees, 825,000 of whom earn wages below that. It is also one of the immediate goals of OUR Walmart. OUR Walmart stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart. It’s a nationwide group of current and former Walmart Associates working together to change the company for the better.

Demos’ report describes the flagging performance at Walmart, citing its lack of investment in human capital as one of the primary reasons for Walmart’s trend of declining sales. Underpaid associates and understaffed stores result in reduced performance, which causes Walmart to lose money. Additionally, the pay practices of Walmart have a negative influence on the local economy, with reduced spending and quality of health care common among those Walmart employs.

The solution for Walmart, Demos explains, is better human capital management. Last year, Walmart’s repurchasing of its own stock resulted in spending in excess of $6.6 billion – a practice with the goal of reducing the amount of publicly traded shares, increasing earnings per share. But if Walmart chose to invest that money into creating pay raises for its associates, Demos reports, it would likely benefit Walmart as a business as well as its associates and the economy, boosting production, performance, and sales.

Women in Retail: Equality is a Long Way Off

Despite advances in gender equality, female retail workers in the U.S. continue to work with less pay than their male counterparts. According to a recent Demos report, female retail workers earn just $10.58 an hour on average, compared to male retail workers’ $14.62 an hour. This pay inequality is experienced by 2.2 million women working in a workforce of 4.6 million, where they consist of slightly less than half of the workforce but 55.4% of the low-wage workers in retail.

Lower wages are only part of the problem, though: many employers do not provide regular schedules or appropriate advance notice of hours to be worked, leading to an uncertain and insufficient income flow for many retail workers. As a result, 1.3 million women in retail are earning wages that keep them at or near the poverty line.

The retail industry is an important factor in the worldwide economy. Like manufacturing once was, retail is now a huge and growing sector of the U.S. economy. The millions of retail workers in America will define what it means to be working middle class in America – from quality of life, to wages and benefits, to how workers are treated by employers nationwide. The gender inequality in the retail industry doesn’t  just impact retail workers and their families, but the American middle class in its entirety.

Unions are one of the most effective ways workers can advocate themselves and their co-workers. For workers in sectors such as retail, joining a union is the best way to ensure a middle-class job with a fair wage and benefits. In 2013, unionized workers earned a weekly take-home wage of $950, compared to $750 for non-unionized workers.

When women join a union, they see an even more pronounced improvement in their wages and benefits: On average, their wages rise by 12.9% and they receive higher chances of receiving employer-provided health insurance or retirement plans. In 2013, women 16 and older who were members of a union earned $898 weekly, while those who were non-union earned $676: a difference of more than $200 a week.

The UFCW, together with the Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU), is the largest retail union in the United States, and it is committed to bringing up working standards in retail. Our local unions mobilize to negotiate for competitive union contracts that raise wages and provide fair employment benefits. We advocate for laws and policies that help the working class, and empower our union members to do the same through campaigns such as those at Walmart, Macy’s, and Bloomingdale’s. Together, we raise the bar for the retail industry with the goal of making retail the ideal of what the American middle class should have in employment.