Pietro one of many trying to survive on $9 hourly retail wage (updated)

by The City Wire staff (info@thecitywire.com) 124 views 

Walking more than a mile to work, Lisa Pietro, a produce handler at a Wal-Mart Store in Winter Haven, Fla., said the $8.95 per hour she earns after two years on the job barely covers her monthly shelter and utilities, much less food and transportation costs.

Single and 57, Pietro loves Wal-Mart, but does not like working for the retailer at times. She said her department is understaffed with just three employees, one of which is a new hire. She is one of 500,000 hourly workers at Wal-Mart in line for the $9 minimum wage come April, as recently announced by Wal-Mart CEO Doug McMillon.

Over the past year, Pietro has averaged between 32 and 36 hours of work per week, getting closer to 40 hours a week through the holiday season and now that the department is understaffed. Pietro is a member of OUR Walmart, saying she joined the union-backed group last fall to push for higher wages for workers like herself. She said a $15 hourly minimum wage would truly make a difference, and that’s still a long way from $9 or even $10 per hour.

(Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg told The City Wire that Pietro is automatically eligible for the $10 hourly rate in February 2016. He reiterated that the retailer has "tens of thousands of hourly associates all over the country earning in excess of $15 an hour.")

“I make $950 per month and Wal-Mart still classifies me as part-time through I work every chance I get, most of the time 32 or more hours a week. I have some critical care insurance but not a medical plan. I just can’t afford it. If I get sick enough that I have to see a doctor then it’s the emergency room for me,” Pietro said.

The bulk of Pietro’s income goes to housing costs as she pays $600 per month for a studio apartment about a mile and a half from the store where she works.

“I have to live near the store because I walk to work and back, I don’t have a car and can rarely afford to take a cab on bad weather days. I rely on friends to help me some; but when you have to be at work at 5 a.m. or your shift ends at midnight or 1 a.m. then you’re on your own. For me, that means walking the 1.5 miles in the dark by myself, which I do regularly,” Pietro said.

“Without my job I would be homeless,” she added.

She told The City Wire that the flexible scheduling promised by the retailer doesn’t help her because the produce jobs are not transferable to other departments.  

“I can’t pick up a shift from a cashier. I am not trained to run a register and the deli worker can’t pick up a shift in my department because they don’t have the training. The flexible scheduling might look good on paper but in reality it doesn’t work for most of the associates in specific areas,” Pietro said.

Over the course of two years, Pietro received two raises from her starting pay of  $7.55, being raised to $8.40 and then to $8.95. She could see a 5-cent per hour raise in April when the $9 minimum becomes effective.

“I don’t know what I would do without the food stamps, that’s how I eat. A nickel more per hour is not going to change that,” she said. “I shop for my clothes at Goodwill, including my shoes.”

Wal-Mart’s recent efforts to raise worker wages was applauded by retail analysts and the industry’s primary trade group as it was seen as a proactive move that might cause other retailers to follow suit. TJX, the parent of T.J. Maxx and Marshalls, announced the following week plans to raise its minimum hourly wage to $9 by June and up to $10 in 2016.

Claire McKenna, of the National Employment Law Project, said Wal-Mart and other retailers raising wages to $10 per hour is antiquated given that many states and cities are already mandating higher minimum wages. According to a January 2015 poll conducted by Hart Research Associates for the National Employment Law Project, in a representative national sample of 1,002 adults, three in four Americans, including 53% of Republicans support raising the federal minimum wage to $12.50, and 63% want the minimum wage increased to $15 per hour by 2020.

McMillon told CNBC recently that he too voted to raise the minimum wage in Arkansas in the general election last November.
McKenna said Costco’s base pay of $12 per hour and Ikea’s starting $11 wage are already setting higher standards than Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest private employer. 

“A concern just as important as the hourly minimum wage is the guarantee of service hours which can provide retail workers stable and sufficient incomes to maintain a decent standard of living,” McKenna said.

At least 50% of Wal-Mart workers are part-time – with many reporting not getting the hours they need, according to OUR Walmart information. A study released by the National Employment Law Project found that 9% of adult retail workers involuntarily worked part time in 2014, compared with just 5% of all working adults. Retail workers make up 11% of working adults but 18% of adults involuntarily working part time.

Wal-Mart is addressing added labor hours for its stores. However, store managers schedule the hours, and their incentive is to run an efficient and productive store because bonuses are paid on performance. Executives told the media Feb. 19 that store managers set worker hours based on the needs of the individual stores.

McMillon and his predecessors at Wal-Mart have said it’s not necessarily where you start but what opportunities there are for advancement that are the most important factors in a retail career. Wal-Mart boasts that 160,000 employees each year are promoted and that 75% of its managers began as hourly employees. But not everybody can get promoted to a job that makes a middle-class salary. For example, there are only eight assistant managers per store, with a base salary of $35,000; plus four shift managers and one store manager, who make more. That comes out to about 62,500 positions, or less than 5% of the company's 1.3 million employees.

While there are plenty of back-office and supply chain related jobs at the retail giant there is a wide base in the retail pyramid. If all workers are the bottom are inherently competing with one another for better-paid positions, some of them won't get far, critics say.

Pietro said she is not interested in becoming a shift manager. She does not want the added pressure from higher management. But, she does want to earn a livable wage doing a job that requires physical stamina, social interaction and attention to detail.

Janet Wills, retired manager for the Individual Development Account program at the Economy Opportunity Agency in Washington County, sees plenty of Arkansas families trying to survive on $9 per hour – which she says is incredibly hard to do even in a state like Arkansas that has a low cost of living. One of the largest underserved demographics in the U.S. is older adult workers, who are often employed full-time at low-paying service jobs or part-time jobs, Wills added.

“The working poor are quiet different from those who are broke. The IDA program has has great of success helping those who are broke, whether that is they lost a good paying job or they are trying to finish their college education. It’s much harder for the working poor to save the money they need to be part of our program,” Wills explained.

The EOA of Washington County has the funding to match 50 IDA members annually and there are income requirements which are 185% of the federal poverty level.

The IDA program is a saving plan where the participant works to set aside $667 of their own money for a particular expenditure, such as a down payment on a home, home renovation, college expenses or capital for a business launch. The program makes a 3:1 match of $2,000 for the IDA member and then disperses the $2,667 to cover the planned expenditure. Wills said when a working poor individual manages to get their $667 saved they are hesitant to let it go.

She said housing costs should never equal more than 35% of someone’s gross income. For a person earning $9 per hour, that would be a maximum $465 per month.

“The first thing I stress with our clients is that they must find affordable housing. Food clothing and shelter are the basics everyone must have. Someone earning $9 per hour would have to rely on government assistance like food stamps and utility vouchers and if they can get it, subsidized housing,” Wills said. “They would have no choice but to plug themselves into the system.” 

When asked why she doesn’t leave her job for opportunities elsewhere, Pietro said most of the smaller retailers in her neighborhood have closed. She said there are other retailers across town, but without transportation they are also out of the question.

Pietro was hoping to use her tax refund as a down payment on a car, but ironically the added hours she was so willing to take during the holiday season put her income just over the threshold for an extra tax credit she has received in recent years.

“I don’t know yet what my store bonus will be. I have been at Wal-Mart two years and we are supposed to get the bonuses quarterly but I have only received two so far. They are based on store profitability,” Pietro said.