McLean, VA (written by Hadley Malcom & Jayne O'Donnell/USA Today) -- If she could figure out how to live in her car, Janet Sparks would.
The 52-year-old makes $11.60 an hour as a front-of-the-store manager at a Louisiana Walmart and says she struggles to pay for basic necessities, let alone her $600-a-month rent.
"I'm giving it all I got, I like what I do, and yet I'm struggling so bad. This is not what it was when I started," says Sparks, who began working for America's No. 1 employer and discount store seven years ago.
Sparks belongs to a loosely knit association of Walmart employees called the Organization United for Respect at Walmart - OUR Walmart, for short. They are prodding the giant retailer to provide better wages, affordable benefits and reasonably reliable schedules for store employees nationwide. Their campaign comes not only at a time when many low-wage workers in the U.S. are struggling to make ends meet, but also as Walmart is rededicating itself to attracting price-conscious consumers like them - by holding down its expenses and guaranteeing the lowest prices.
OUR Walmart is not a labor union and lacks the right to bargain with the company on workers' behalf. The group receives financial and technical support from the nation's largest retail workers union - the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which has tried to organize Walmart workers in the past.
OUR Walmart claims about 5,000 members who pay monthly dues of $5 each.
Members learn how to stand up for themselves with store managers and about their legal protections as workers. They try to recruit fellow associates at their stores, and local groups hold meetings to discuss specific grievances. About three dozen members traveled to Walmart's annual shareholders meeting last week in Bentonville, Ark., to pass out fliers about their cause.
In the two years since OUR Walmart's creation, Walmart (WMT) has twice raised the number of hours that part-time employees need to qualify for health benefits. Wage caps begun about six years ago block raises for some longtime employees in the same jobs. And some workers say the company's work-scheduling system limits their hours below what they need to qualify for benefits and produces such widely varying schedules that it's difficult to take a second job to make ends meet.
A "Declaration of Respect" that about 100 OUR Walmart members presented to the company last June calls on Walmart to offer affordable health care, create more dependable schedules and pay at least $13 an hour, among other things.
Walmart says the national average hourly wage for its full-time workers is $12.40 but declined to say what it is for part-time workers. The federal minimum wage has been $7.25 since 2009.
"I have credit card debt that is unreal because I can't make it," Sparks says. "Walmart should pay a better wage."
OUR Walmart's complaints come as the company is marking its 50th anniversary in July and shaking off a recession-induced slump. Its stock is near an all-time high, first-quarter earnings beat Wall Street expectations and its U.S. stores turned in their best results in three years. But its progress has been blemished by allegations in an April New York Times article that Walmart executives bribed officials in Mexico to facilitate its expansion there.
Walmart says wages and benefits for its 1.4 million U.S. employees are as good as or better than other retailers' and that OUR Walmart's members - helped by the UFCW - are just trying to promote discontent.
While conceding there are "some people who may have individual issues in individual stores," Walmart spokesman David Tovar says about 300,000 U.S. workers have been with the company more than 10 years. He says that shows how many are happy with their jobs.
Data from management consulting firm Aon Hewitt show Walmart's "employee engagement levels" - which measure the "level of focus, energy and effort people put into their work" - are above the U.S. retail industry average, says Aon Hewitt spokeswoman Maurissa Kanter. The firm's engagement index includes more than 300 large global retailers and fewer than a dozen U.S. retailers.
Still, the retailer recently agreed to pay $4.8 million in back wages and damages to more than 4,500 employees as part of a settlement with the Labor Department concerning unpaid overtime. Settlement negotiations began in 2007.
Most OUR Walmart members interviewed for this story were provided by UFCW, while non-members were provided by Walmart.
'All over the clock' schedules
Like Target and other retailers, Walmart uses a computerized scheduling system in its U.S. stores that cross-references employees' available hours with likely store sales and customer traffic to determine who should be working and when. Managers can adjust the schedule to store needs. Schedules are posted three weeks in advance, but repeated changes can occur afterward, some employees say.
Sparks says her schedule is "all over the clock." In a recent week, she worked two shifts on Saturday, from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. and then 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Sparks returned Sunday to work 5:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and then Monday from 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. She had Tuesday off and returned to work Wednesday from 5 a.m. to 2 p.m., had another day off, and then worked another day of two four-hour shifts at her Baker, La., Walmart.
Sparks, who is considered full time, usually works 34-36 hours a week. She says the week described above was the first time in months she was scheduled to work 40 hours.
"Nobody can depend on what hours they're going to get," she says.
The scheduling system lets Walmart take workers' preferences and availability into account but also make sure stores have enough staff when people are most likely to shop, Tovar says. OUR Walmart member Lana Stewart works 23-30 hours a week in Laurel, Md., but says that's only because "I was fighting for hours." She typically will work an eight-hour shift on the weekends, but complains she sometimes gets only four-hour shifts on the three weekdays she is able to work.
Stewart, 49, helps care for her grandchildren and can only work until 7 p.m., but she says she could be getting more daytime hours given how busy her store is.
Walmart's scheduling also makes it difficult for workers to hold a second job or take classes, several OUR Walmart members say.
Venanzi Luna, a deli manager at the Walmart in Pico Rivera, Calif., says senior managers at her store often schedule employees to work "knowing they have to go to school." She says she has complained to managers on behalf of her employees that they'll tell those who want to take classes or second jobs that they're "all for it," but then "make it hard for them."
Jackie Milan, who isn't a member of OUR Walmart, says she's never had a problem pursuing an education while at Walmart. The 28-year-old, who started as a cashier in 2001, worked mostly full time while getting her bachelor's degree in psychology. Now she's seeking her teacher's certification and maintaining 32 hours a week as a sales associate in Eldon, Mo.
Sparks says she has tried to get a second job and was even hired by another discount store last year, but her erratic work schedule limited her availability and she lost the second job when she wasn't able to work enough hours.
Crazy hours, low wages and spotty benefits are simply a fact of retail life, industry executives say.
Craig Rowley, who leads the retail consulting practice at management consulting firm Hay Group, says that it's understandable store employees want predictability, but that retail is "not a predictable industry."
Higher bar for benefits
Fluctuating hours also make it difficult to qualify - and pay - for health care coverage, workers complain.
Full-time employees are eligible for benefits six months after being hired, while part-time employees must wait a year and average 30 hours weekly, Walmart says. That's up from an average 24 hours a week for part-time employees hired before Feb. 1, 2012. There's no minimum for part-timers hired before Jan. 15, 2011.
Walmart says it changed its health care plan to more closely conform to the new federal health care law.
Greg Fletcher, an electronics sales associate at the Duarte, Calif., store, works 24 to 32 hours a week and says he's getting the "high end" of available hours. His wife also works at Walmart but lacks enough hours to earn benefits. Together they made $25,000 last year. Fletcher says Walmart's benefits would cost up to a third of his paycheck to cover his family.
"For a lot of people, it's just an unaffordable option," the 29-year-old says.
Instead, the Fletchers are on Medi-Cal, California's Medicaid program, to help cover themselves and their two sons, ages 6 and 9 months.
However, Walmart subsidizes a greater percentage of the cost of health care coverage than most retailers, says Will Sneden, senior vice president in Aon Hewitt's health and benefits practice. Sneden, who counts Walmart as a client, says the discounter's health benefits consistently rank in the top 25% of retailers "due to favorable eligibility and a wider choice of plan options with relatively low employee premiums."
Several full-time employees who are not OUR Walmart members and who consistently work 38-40 hours a week say they have no problem paying for the company's health insurance and other benefits. Maria Kontros, 54, who works 40 hours a week, makes $12.31 an hour as a sales clerk at the Cranberry Township, Pa., store. She pays $182, or almost 20% of her biweekly paycheck, toward insurance for herself and her husband, who works at Target.
Walmart says Kontros could be paying less - as little as $48.60 a paycheck in health insurance premiums - if she chose to accept a higher deductible.
Caps on raises
Longtime employees also say their incomes have been stunted since 2006, when Walmart imposed wage limits that prevent further raises once they hit the cap for their position, unless they are promoted to better-paying jobs. OUR Walmart member Mary Pat Tifft, 57, has been with Walmart 20 years and earns more than $19 an hour working with grocery vendors when they deliver to her Kenosha, Wis., store. She says her wages have been capped for six years and she won't get a raise unless she enters management. Tifft doesn't want to because the longer hours would cut into her family life, she says. Walmart says Tifft earns almost $2 an hour more than her job's pay cap, which took effect after she was above it.
However, Rowley, the Hay Group management consultant, says most companies have salary ranges for their jobs, which they raise "as the market moves."
Despite their dissatisfaction, many OUR Walmart members still say they feel loyalty to the company and don't necessarily want different jobs.
"To me, I've invested seven years in Walmart, so I don't want to just completely leave," Sparks says.
Sparks says she enjoys the responsibility of her position, of overseeing cashiers, door greeters and cart pushers, of managing the flow of cash from customers.
Fletcher also says, "I actually really like the job. I love the associates there. In a way, the low working standards bond people."
But OUR Walmart members would like to see those standards raised.
"If I depended on Walmart to pay my rent, I couldn't," Stewart says. "It's ridiculous."