Walmart employees in Fort Smith, Ark., and Denver are participating in a pilot program that could significantly change the way work schedules are managed for the more than 1.3 million employees in the company’s more than 4,000 U.S. stores.

Bentonville-based Wal-Mart Stores has been criticized by employees and labor groups for work schedules that are inconsistent and unreliable – like changing schedules with little notice. Such schedules, for example, make it difficult for part-time Walmart employees to work a second job.

In early 2012, the Organization United for Respect at Wal-Mart (OUR Walmart) formed to lobby the company for more reliable work schedules. According to a USA Today report, the organization had about 5,000 members in mid-2012.

“Even after five years at the company, I’m not getting the hours that I need and want,” according to a statement from Maria Elena Jefferson, a Walmart employee from Paramount, Calif. “Even if I wanted to get a second job or go back to school, I couldn’t because Walmart constantly changes my schedule. I’m dedicated to my job and I have years of experience – I want to work full time so that the work gets done well.”

The Jefferson statement was provided to The City Wire by OUR Walmart. The group receives funding from the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

FORT SMITH EXPERIENCE
The new scheduling program allows hourly store employees the opportunity to pick up extra shifts. The program pilot began in February for Kelly Clark, store manager of Walmart Supercenter No. 125, located on Zero Street in Fort Smith.

The Fort Smith location and two stores in Denver are testing it, with plans to expand to more stores by July and hopefully be accessible in all 4,000 U.S. stores by October, according to Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg.

Clark said it’s been an easy program to begin, and is helping department managers fill vacant time slots that routinely occur with sometimes little warning.

“The managers make out their schedules and post the open slots on the back bulletin board and online via WalmartOne (company intranet) which can be accessed from a smartphone or any terminal in the store,” Clark said.

This gives hourly workers a clear view of what open shifts are available and helps managers find the staff they need to ensure their departments can run smoothly, he added. The workers make a request to fill the open slot and are notified within 24 hours of that request.

Wal-Mart supercenters typically employ about 300 workers, the majority are full-time, Lundberg said.

CROSS-TRAINING HELP
Clark said the hourly associates have been receptive to the program, which is voluntary.

“One aspect I hadn’t thought of was the cross-training that can occur with a program like this. We do make sure the associate filling in can pass a litmus test if there are specific quality control issues at stake,” Clark said.

Thai-hoc Nguyen, a recent college graduate, works part-time at Wal-Mart and is learning more about the overall store operations. He recently transferred from a cashier position in the Tire, Lube Express division to the grocery meat department, which involves a new set of duties.

Nguyen said working part-time and picking-up other shifts is giving him a much broader education in Walmart store operation, which he is hoping will one day lead to a management position. He recently learned to mix paint so he could fill in for a vacant shift in the hardware department.

“I want to learn as much as I can so I will definitely be taking on more shifts,” Nguyen said.

RETAIL JOB SUPPORT
Bill Simon, CEO of Walmart U.S., promised in January during a keynote speech at the National Retail Federation Conference that the retailer would be giving its working part-time first opportunity to move to full-time positions as they become available. The National Retail Federation reports one in four jobs is supported by the retail industry, and Simon has said the industry should be proud of the jobs it creates.

He spoke passionately about retail jobs saying at any given time there are between 15,000 and 50,000 job postings at Wal-Mart. And the retailer promotes about 160,000 employees each year. One statistic Wal-Mart is happy to share is that 75% of store management started as hourly workers.

Clark said he began his career at Wal-Mart in June 1979 as a cart pusher. This summer he will celebrate his 34th year, the last 10 as the store manager on Zero Street.

Clark said the program has been a win-win for his store, and did not see a problem from potentially higher operational costs that could arise from added benefits should a part-time worker tip the scale to full-time.

Alan Ellstrand, a corporate governance expert and professor at the University of Arkansas, applauds Wal-Mart for this initiative to give part-time workers more hours and opportunities to attain full-time status.

“It is relatively low cost for Wal-Mart and it gives management a chance to better assess the talent pool they already have onboard, looking for ambitious individuals who want the opportunity to learn. Wal-Mart will save on recruiting efforts if these part-time workers eventually move to full-time and there is also payoff that comes from being able to retain a workforce in a high-turnover business,” he said.

STEPPING STONE
In the two and a half months the program has been tested, Clark said he’s become a fan. He said the more skills and broader knowledge base a worker has the better chance they have to move to full-time. Getting back to Simon’s pledge, Clark said part-time workers would have first dibs on full-time jobs at Wal-Mart and this program is a stepping stone.

Derek Sanders, a seven-year Walmart employee from Fremont, Calif., is likely an employee who would be happy to have a stepping stone.

“You can see the problems when you walk into the store – the shelves are empty. And in the back room, it’s even worse,” Sanders said in a statement provided by OUR Walmart. “We’re two seasons behind on getting things out to the floor. Yet with all the work that needs to be done, I am still only able to get 24 hours of work most weeks. It’s impossible to get all the work done in the time allotted.”

Wal-Mart spokesman Dan Fogleman noted in an e-mail that Sanders has been on a leave of absence since March 12, and therefore wouldn’t know recent details on the appearance of the back room.

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Kim Souza

Kim Souza

Kim Souza is the Northwest Arkansas Editor for The City Wire, a content partner with Talk Business & Politics. You can reach her by email at KSouza@TheCityWire.com or follow her on Twitter: @TCWKim.