An Oklahoma City Walmart is asking employees to donate food to help their coworkers make ends meet during the holiday season, according to a photo posted by the labor-backed coalition Making Change At Walmart. A sign on the collection bin reads, “Let’s succeed by donating to associates in need!!!”
The company drew criticism for similar employee food drives a year ago. At that time, a spokesman characterized the efforts as “part of the company’s culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships.”
A request for comment Thursday was not immediately returned, but a spokeswoman later told ThinkProgress that the food drive was started by the store’s Dairy Department Manager with the specific goal of aiding two coworkers who are on medical leave. “Two associates are on medical leave of absence and are unable to work, leaving their families who depend on two incomes down to only one. I think that putting a Thanksgiving meal on the table should be the last thing these people have to worry about, and so my next question was whether I could start a food drive at the store to help them out,” dairy manager Dawne Sulaitis wrote. Walmart does not offer paid sick leave, and Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin (R) has prohibited cities from enacting paid sick leave requirements.
The worker who snapped the Oklahoma City photo released on Thursday did not want to be identified for fear of retaliation from the company, representatives of Making Change at Walmart said. The company has faced formal charges for illegally firing and disciplining over 100 workers for participating in the organizing efforts. It also trains store managers to monitor employee conversations, report worker sympathies with the union campaign to senior management, and dissuade workers from joining the OUR Walmart campaign without violating the letter of the law governing worker-manager interactions around union rights.
If Walmart employees face unusual financial hardships, it may be partly because of the company’s long-standing focus on minimizing its labor costs by keeping employee pay low and restricting many of its workers to part-time hours that further undermine their standard of living. The company’s labor policies have been cited by analysts as a driving factor in Walmart’s recent struggles, as poorly stocked shelves and untidy grocery sections have lead frustrated customers to turn elsewhere. Workers have campaigned for years for better pay and the right to form a union, and often focus their activism and strikes in the months around the traditional U.S. holiday season. Their core demand is for the company’s frontline employees to earn $25,000 per year, which a majority currently do not according to the company’s chief executive. Some observers have argued the company could meet that demand without raising prices by more than a few cents for customers.
In addition to asking workers to help feed each other, Walmart gets an assist from every taxpayer in the country. The company’s low wages leave huge numbers of its employees on public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid. By one estimate, a single Walmart superstore incurs up to $1.7 million in public assistance spending every year. The company incurs a total public assistance cost of $6.2 billion per year, or roughly 40 percent of its $16 billion profit total for 2013, according to Americans for Tax Fairness.
The food charity collections among frontline workers are just one, seasonal component of that “culture to rally around associates and take care of them.” Walmart also runs a corporate charity called the Associates in Critical Need Fund, which recently made the news because the company uses it to lure corporate employees into chipping into the company PAC that spends money to influence elections and lawmakers. Any time a white-collar Walmart worker makes a voluntary PAC contribution, the corporate treasury gives twice as much to the charity for struggling workers. Critics say that double-matching system violates federal campaign finance law.
This post has been updated with comment from a Walmart spokeswoman and the worker who started the Oklahoma City food drive.