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Wal-Mart workers air concerns

A group of employees speak to the media about scheduling issues as part of a loosely organized, self-described rights group.

By MARK ALBRIGHT
Published September 1, 2005


Belva Whitt liked her cashier's job at a Brandon Wal-Mart, even though she still needed food stamps and Medicaid for health insurance.

That is until the discount store in June switched to a central computer at corporate headquarters in Arkansas to create store work schedules. Her bosses gave her fewer hours to work unless she made herself available for night shifts and odd hours on weekends. The only other option: quit.

"I dropped from a full-time employee to part-time. Some weeks I haven't been able to get scheduled to work at all," said the single mother with a 12-year-old at home who relies on a vehicle shared with relatives to get around. "It's difficult enough making ends meet on $7.40 an hour. Now it's choosing between paying the rent or having food on the table."

Meanwhile, her store continues hiring a stream of new workers who earn less than she does.

Whitt was one of a handful of Central Florida Wal-Mart workers to make similar concerns public Wednesday at news conferences in Tampa and Orlando. The stage was provided by the newly organized Wal-Mart Workers Association, a self-described rights group claiming about 200 Wal-Mart rank and file workers as members that is getting financial staff support from labor unions, antipoverty groups such as ACORN, private foundations and some church groups. Members pay $5 a month in dues.

"It's time Wal-Mart workers take a stand," said Carl Jones, lead cart pusher at an Apopka Wal-Mart who is acting chairman of the association until an election is held.

The group, which has members working in 30 Florida Wal-Mart stores from Melbourne west to St. Petersburg, adds a new dimension to a national alliance of labor, environmental, antisprawl and antipoverty groups trying to make a social and political issue out of the way the world's largest retailer does business.

"Customers need to know what kind of store and employer Wal-Mart is," said Wade Rathke, chief organizer of ACORN's anti-Wal-Mart campaign that is providing office space to the association. "This group puts a human face on it. Clearly, this problem of scheduling is sweeping through the stores in Florida."

Wal-Mart officials contend the company did not change its work scheduling policy. The company only has become more rigid about using a centralized system to match staffing to customer traffic peaks. They also noted that 200 employees out of about 92,000 working statewide were hardly representative.

The larger alliance's campaign against Wal-Mart moves to Eckerd College today for a two-day conference among national movement leaders to compare notes on successful tactics and lobby techniques to get Florida cities and counties to restrict the growth of big box store chains. The ideas range from tighter zoning, which has been tried in California, to requiring large employers to contribute more to employee health care insurance, which recently was passed by the New York City Council.

The workers group, which says thousands of Wal-Mart workers in Florida have been forced to work reduced hours, lose benefits or quit their jobs as a result of the scheduling stance, on Wednesday announced it would become a clearinghouse to assist affected workers file unemployment insurance claims. They say such a drastic the change in working conditions could effectively amount to an involuntary firing.

"They told me if I couldn't work these new hours, we would have to part ways," said Salathiel Thomas, a greeter for seven months at a new supercenter in St. Peterbsurg. "But I was really fired."

Thomas, 70, was willing to work only days because she has an 11-year-old granddaughter at home whom she didn't want to leave at home alone weeknights.

Several members said Wal-Mart's tougher stance on scheduling already cost about two dozen workers - or about 10 percent of the hourly staff at each store - their jobs. Many say part of the problem is they need to hold second jobs to earn a living, which makes Wal-Mart's demand for maximum flexibility even more difficult.

Entry-level workers need to work several quarters to qualify for unemployment benefits, but many Wal-Mart workers forced to accept cuts in pay and benefits are longtime veterans with up to 20 years on the payroll. When former workers apply for unemployment benefits, Wal-Mart must decide whether to voluntarily agree to help pay their benefits or face an appeal process in which state officials are the final arbiter.

Having thousands of employees file for such benefits could cost Wal-Mart a lot of money and create a paper trail that could be used for class-action lawsuits.

Many Wal-Mart employees said they are worried about the consequences of speaking out.

"There would be a lot more people to speak out here today, but they are scared of retribution," said Gloria Barker, who works at a Tampa Wal-Mart. "They do it indirect ways. The management uses fear to intimidate workers. I'm tired of management disrespecting us."

But company officials said no one would lose their job over the press conference.

"It is their right to express themselves," said spokesman Eric Brewer. "However, we would prefer they bring problems up through the internal chain of command. Our corporate culture is open-door all the way up. If you don't like the answer your boss gave you, you go to the next level."

Mark Albright can be reached at 727 893-8252 or albright@sptimes.com

[Last modified September 1, 2005, 00:57:17]


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