June 29, 2002
Barbara Eherenreich—member of the Blitherati

Another screed from The Nation Alumna Barbara Ehrenreich appears in today's New York Times. I have taken the liberty of responding to her directly, as an experiment.

Only a person of unblemished virtue can get a job at Wal-Mart — a low-level job, that is, sorting stock, unloading trucks or operating a cash register. A drug test eliminates the chemical miscreants; a detailed "personality test" probes the job applicant's horror of theft and willingness to turn in an erring co-worker.

Here's a clue for you, Babs—High-level employees don't start at the top.

Here's another clue—It's not just entry-level jobs at Wal-Mart. Ask anybody who works in a job with a security clearance, whether governmental or private sector—they are subjected to a background check that would probably cause you to stroke out, in addition to continued drug testing. I have seen a Navy Commander on a random urinalysis testing roster; they are in the same computer database as the lower-level people, and are just as likely to have to provide a specimen.

Extreme submissiveness to authority is another desirable trait. When I applied for a job at Wal-Mart in the spring of 2000, I was reprimanded for getting something "wrong" on this test: I had agreed only "strongly" to the proposition, "All rules have to be followed to the letter at all times." The correct answer was "totally agree."

Ah, yes. Flexibility in adherence to rules. We all know how public sector agencies such as the IRS and the EPA are willing to overlook minor infractions, and work with groups, agencies, and individuals who fail to comply with the rules. Your failure to follow the rules to the letter when OSHA is around can result in some severe fines for your employer, whether it is Wal-Mart or The Nation.

Apparently the one rule that need not be slavishly adhered to at Wal-Mart is the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which requires that employees be paid time and a half if they work more than 40 hours in a week. Present and former Wal-Mart employees in 28 states are suing the company for failure to pay overtime.
A Wal-Mart spokesman says it is company policy "to pay its employees properly for the hours they work." Maybe so, but it wasn't a policy I remember being emphasized in the eight-hour orientation session all new "associates" are required to attend. The session included a video on "associate honesty" that showed a cashier being caught on videotape as he pocketed some bills from the cash register. Drums beat ominously as he was led away in handcuffs and sentenced to four years in prison.

And your point? Do you not consider theft to be a crime that deserves punishment?

The personnel director warned us, in addition, against "time theft," or the use of company time for anything other than work — "anything at all," she said, which was interpreted in my store as including trips to the bathroom. We were to punch out even for our two breaks, to make sure we did not exceed the allotted 15 minutes.

Another common practice, as there are those that will spend more time socializing, smoking, primping in front of the mirror, or just slacking unless they are specifically told that that is not acceptable. I have worked minimum-wage jobs myself, and some of the people I worked with were grossly overpaid at $3.35/hour.

It turns out, however, that Wal-Mart management doesn't hold itself to the same standard of rectitude it expects from its low-paid employees. My first inkling of this came in the form of a warning from a co-worker not to let myself be persuaded to work overtime because, she explained, Wal-Mart doesn't pay overtime. Naïvely, I told her this was impossible; such a large company would surely not be flouting federal law.

For some reason, I don't expect you to write a retraction if Wal-Mart is exonerated of these charges. I have never worked for Wal-Mart, so I cannot comment on their working environment. I've seldom heard anything negative about the company, though, except from those who oppose it simply because it represents a successful business model.

I should have known better. We had been apprised, during orientation, that even after punching out, associates were required to wait on any customers who might approach them. Thanks to the further requirement that associates wear their blue and yellow vests until the moment they went out the door, there was no avoiding pesky last-minute customers.
Now some present and former employees have filed lawsuits against Wal-Mart. They say they were ordered to punch out after an eight-hour shift and then continue working for no pay. In a practice, reported in The Times, that you might expect to find only in a third-world sweatshop, Wal-Mart store managers in six states have locked the doors at closing time, some employees say, forcing all present to remain for an hour or more of unpaid labor.

I will flatly state that I find this quite difficult to believe (the unpaid hour part). Locking the doors when a store closes is common practice (keeps additional customers from entering the store), but only if the employees are forced to punch out and continue working is this a labor violation.

This is "time theft" on a grand scale — practically a mass mugging. Of course, in my brief experience while doing research for a book on low-wage work, I found such practices or milder versions of them by no means confined to Wal-Mart.

Here she sets up a vast indictment of American business in general.

At a Midwestern chain store selling hardware and lumber, I was offered an 11-hour shift five days a week — with no overtime pay for the extra 15 hours. A corporate-run housecleaning service paid a starting wage of only $6.65 an hour but required us to show up in the morning 40 minutes before the clock started running — for meetings and to prepare for work by filling our buckets with cleaning supplies.

Not all jobs are based on a 40-hour work week. Teachers work less than 40 hours; doctors and cops often work more. My father worked 65 hours/week for many years with no additional pay; when I am deployed, I may work 100 hours/week, 7 days a week. I receive less money when I am deployed, although I don't have to pay for housing and food when I am away from home. Long hours come part and parcel with some jobs; if you don't like the hours, don't take the job.

What has been revealed in corporate America over the past six months is a two-tier system of morality: Low-paid employees are required to be hard-working, law-abiding, rule-respecting straight arrows. More than that, they are often expected to exhibit a selfless generosity toward the company, readily "donating" chunks of their time free of charge. Meanwhile, as we have learned from the cases of Enron, Adelphia, ImClone, WorldCom and others, many top executives have apparently felt free to do whatever they want — conceal debts, lie about profits, engage in insider trading — to the dismay and sometimes ruin of their shareholders.

Adelphia, Enron, and Worldcom are going to end up with people in jail for their misdeeds, and Arthur Anderson has vanished without a trace, because its lies were brought to light.

But investors are not the only victims of the corporate crime wave. Workers also suffer from management greed and dishonesty. In Wal-Mart's case, the moral gravity of its infractions is compounded by the poverty of its "associates," many of whom are paid less than $10 an hour. As workers discover that their problem is not just a rogue store manager or "bad apple" but management as a whole, we can expect at the very least widespread cynicism, and perhaps an epidemic of rule-breaking from below.

Oh, the "poverty" card. An employee who works a 40-hour week at $10/hour will earn $20,000/year, which is above the poverty line for a family of four. If a spouse gets a comparable job, they will together earn $40,000, which is enough for a family to live in reasonable comfort, as long as it is not in a high-rent area such as the NYC area, the SF Bay region, Alaska, or Hawaii.

Remember, most of the people stuck in low-end jobs are a)students, b) retirees, or c) those who have not completed high school. Since students generally live with their parents and retirees receive Social Security benefits, the only people your diatribe is relevant to is those who failed to graduate. Since school is free and universal, those who drop out have only themselves to blame. Companies pay more to people who have more education; that is simple economics at work.

posted on June 29, 2002 08:49 PM


I'm an O-4 in the reserves and I've peed in the bottle 4 times this fiscal year. 4 out of 9 weekends. I'll bet that's more than most active duty guys.

posted by Kevin on June 30, 2002 12:33 PM

I can empathize. Although I'm active duty, I've been tagged five times in the last 10 months. Unit sweeps really blow...

posted by timekeeper on July 1, 2002 08:17 PM

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