Undercover at Walmart

(This guest post is from award-winning investigative reporter Tracie McMillan.)

“What’s it like to work at Walmart?”

I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked this question. At first, my working-class roots got the better of me. I’d smile icily to whatever well-intentioned person had asked the question, and ask earnestly, “Have you ever had a crummy job? It’s like that.

I had set myself up for this, of course. As a reporter, I’d gone “undercover” to work at Walmart—less because I expected to blow the lid off of a scandal, more because I wanted to see how the behemoth in charge of one-quarter of America’s food supply did its work. And in reporting The American Way of Eating, I learned many times over that reporters going through the press office get treated with far more care than those who do not.

So here was my not-so-groundbreaking verdict about what it’s like to work at Walmart: Tough. There’s no shame in working at Walmart, which is a good thing since in many towns it’s one of the only employers still around. But there’s a real shame in how they treated me, my colleagues and even the food we stocked.

Take, for example, my stint on the night shift, stocking the Baking Aisle over the holiday rush. I had already seen colleagues get pulled aside and told to take a three-hour lunch to avoid hitting overtime—although, since “lunch” came at 2 a.m., that meant three unpaid hours at Walmart in the middle of the night. So when my manager came up to me, mid-shift, I thought I’d be getting a longer lunch. I’d been scheduled to work 42 hours that week—helpful, I thought, to get extra hours in the holiday season—but my manager told me to just skip work the next day. I was going to be hitting full-time hours, she said, so best to just not come in at all. When I protested that I had been scheduled for those hours, she apologized, but rules were rules and she was under pressure from the store manager. Just don’t come in.

Nobody took away my hours when I worked at another store in produce, but that might have just been because my manager wasn’t nearly as organized. Randy was twenty, a white kid from a working class family, holding down two jobs. He had just moved into the management position from electronics, and I am not exaggerating when I say he knew nothing about his job. Our returns would pile up for days, lettuce oozing rot onto the floor, because he didn’t schedule anyone to inventory them. One day I threw out 200 pounds of asparagus, all of it coated in mold, after discovering it at the back of the cooler, stamped with a date more than a month previous. A clerk from deli complained that she had bought some peppers that looked okay, but when she got them home they were filled with mold. It wasn’t entirely Randy’s fault, of course; he had been given the job but, clearly, not much training.

Most of my co-workers and I complained to each other about Randy, save for one: Sam, an African-American man with five years of produce experience and a year at the store. Word in the department was that Sam had applied for the manager position, too, but they’d picked Randy instead. Sam didn’t complain at all.

Truthfully, Randy’s lack of skill was more than an annoyance in the workplace; it also robbed local residents of good food. Our store was one of two grocers in the town where we were working, and so our produce section was responsible for half that town’s fresh food supply.

All of this, of course, was perfectly legal. When I called the labor department, they explained that there’s nothing illegal about reducing a worker’s hours at the last minute. Certainly there’s no law against hiring an inept produce manager over an experienced one, or against running a produce department poorly. In a competitive market, workers can go elsewhere for jobs, and shoppers can go elsewhere for food—but Walmart was one of the few places to go for either.

I’ve long since lost my attitude when people ask me what it’s like to work at Walmart. I can’t blame them for asking, and it’s a measure of their character that they even ask at all. I don’t treat them to horror stories, I just tell them the truth: Pretty much everything I saw was legal, but that doesn’t mean it’s right.

Tracie McMillan is the author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, and is a Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.