As Mother’s Day approached, Charlene Fletcher, mother of two, found herself occupied with the needs of other families, attending to the crush of shoppers last week at the Walmart in Duarte, Calif., where she works.
Like many employees at Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, Fletcher is required to work whenever the company needs her, which almost always means spending weekends and holidays at the store.
Yet even as she makes available most of her working hours, she earns so little that she has to rely on government assistance to feed her kids. Relying on help from the government is “embarrassing,” she said. “Nobody should have to do that, especially with what Walmart makes.”
According to a recent report by the Working Poor Families Project, nearly one-third of all working families in the United States earn what the report defines as a low income
“We know that these are people who are serious about work,” he said. “They bring all the significant cultural habits and norms that we care about, and despite that, are still earning so little that they qualify as poor.”
Fletcher said she expected Mother’s Day at the store to be stressful. Since she joined Walmart, she said, the store has cut staff and leaned on the remaining employees to fill in the gaps. Fletcher operates the phones, relaying calls between customers, managers, and workers, and said she often has trouble getting employees on the line. “They can barely maintain their departments, let alone answer a phone call,” she said.
But this is for the children:
The Waltons have long supported efforts to privatize education through the Walton Family Foundation as well as individual political donations to local candidates. Since 2005, the Waltons have given more than $1 billion to organizations and candidates who support privatization. They’ve channeled the funds to the pro-charter and pro-voucher Milton Friedman Foundation for Education Choice, Michelle Rhee’s pro-privatization and high-stakes testing organization Students First, and the pro-voucher Alliance for School Choice, where Walton family member Carrie Walton Penner sits on the board.
Many studies show that parents’ incomes are the best predictor of students’ academic performance, which results in a wide “achievement gap” between affluent and low-income students. Walmart contributes to this gap. It is not only the nation’s largest private employer, with well over one million employees, but it also has the largest number of poverty-level jobs in the country. If the Waltons, who still own half of Walmart, really wanted to do something to help improve schools, they could start by paying their employees a living wage.
Wal Mart wouldn’t even have to pay employees more to improve the lives of parents and other employees, although they should do that, too. They could simply give their employees predictable schedules. The biggest complaint I hear from parents who are low-wage workers here is that they can’t schedule anything. They can’t commit to doing any regular activity with their kids or keep their kids on a schedule, because their low wage employer demands they remain essentially “on call” with a chaotic Just In Time schedule that varies week-to-week or month-to-month. That’s an absolutely ridiculous demand for an employer to make when that employer is paying wages so low workers qualify for food stamps. They’re being paid peanuts for the time they’re at work, and the low wage employer controls their time off and family life, too, with the shifting schedule. Low wages PLUS the time demands made on the executive-professional class. All the stress of a high income job but none of the pay. How did that happen?
The Wal Mart heirs are huge players in the school reform industry and everyone who has a pulse will admit that parents are a huge factor in any child’s educational success. When do the reform industry players like Gates and Rhee and Klein and Arne Duncan, people who are so very concerned about our children, pressure Wal Mart on how Wal Mart treats their employees? The reformers all insist they’re not Right wing ideological zealots and it’s purely coincidental that their goals always, always line up with their hard Right donors. If that’s true, why does their advocacy for children begin and end at union busting, lowering wages, replacing middle-aged, middle-class teachers with temps, and privatizing public schools?
Kids aren’t dropped from the sky ready for another fun day of standardized test prep, and they don’t disappear off the face of the earth once it’s “pencils down.” They live in actual communities, with their parents. I bet those test scores would go right up if millions of parents who work for low wage employers got better working conditions and a raise.
Reformers like to claim they’re innovators. Let’s try this reform idea. Too bold? Too risky?