$6.40 an hour for nine years: how I got stuck in a career as a Walmart employee
Robert M Galbreath
I believed that I would only be working at Walmart for a few months. I was wrong, but staying for so long taught me valuable life lessons
“You don’t know shit!” is a hard lesson to swallow, but it was one of the first things I learned when I started my nine-year career as a sales and inventory control associate at a Walmart in Laramie, Wyoming.
When I was hired by the company at $6.40 an hour, I believed I would only be working there for a few months before I landed a cool gig at a non-profit in Denver, or had my manuscript discovered by Random House. I had dropped out of college to pursue my dream of becoming the next Stephen King. I thought I was wise beyond my years and looked down on many of my new co-workers: soon I would be living in Denver, Santa Fe, or even New York City while they would still be stuck at the local Walmart.
Of course, my Gothic novel was not picked up by a fancy publisher, and soon the harsh reality set in: no one would be hiring a kid from Wyoming with only a high school degree and no work experience in the midst of the recession.
Almost nine years later, I was still working at the same store. I was broke, in debt, and Walmart was one of the few employment options in town.
I earned around $2,000 a month after putting in a lot of hours and snatching up overtime whenever it was offered, working 11 days in a row or taking long shifts. After paying $475 for rent, $193 a month on my car, $75 per month for car insurance, utilities, phone, basic cable, food, minimum payments on my credit card debt that were over $100, taxes (single working people making over the poverty level usually do not get any tax deductions), and $230 a month for health insurance, I had little left over.
I felt like a failure with no future, no money, no assets, and lots of credit card debt. The small savings I accumulated would quickly disappear into an emergency car repair for the six-mile round trip to work (especially necessary during the cold, windy winter), or were used to pay the doctor for necessary care out of my pocket because my health insurance plan had a $7,500 deductible.
Walmart did offer steady hours and, if you could afford the deductions from your paycheck, provided health, dental, and disability insurance. We received paid sick days and vacation time – although you had to work an entire year before you were granted a single precious week of vacation.
I was disillusioned with politicians on both sides of the aisle who didn’t seem to give a damn about people who weren’t in poverty but made less than $30,000 a year. I made too much to qualify for federal tax credits to buy inexpensive health insurance under Obamacare. My premiums rose every year, and soon health insurance was my second highest personal expenditure after rent. Politicians gave lip service to tax cuts and programs for the “middle class,” but never seemed to mention the “working class.”
And before you ask why I did not do everything I could to leave, well – I truly felt working at Walmart was the only option open to me at the time. Few places in town offered the steady hours and limited benefits that Walmart did. I lacked the self-confidence to return to college as a non-traditional student, had limited financial resources to move to a different city, and perhaps most importantly, I didn’t believe I had any social connections outside of Laramie to help me start a new life somewhere else.
These factors fueled anger and resentment. I am ashamed that on occasion, in order to hide my own personal frustrations and insecurities about my queerness, I participated in racism, sexism, and homophobia in an attempt to fit in with the guys at work.
However, most of my anger was directed at older co-workers who had worked at Walmart for a long time. My biggest fear was becoming one of “them,” a “lifer” stuck at Walmart, and I treated them with contempt.
Thankfully, a co-worker named Nathan taught me humility, kindness and respect for those who worked hard and cared about their jobs in the low paying service sector.
A year into my Walmart career, Nathan and I were unloading a refrigerated truck, or “reefer.” No one liked that task. Hauling unstable pallets stacked 9ft high with several tons of dairy and frozen goods from a frigid, dark trailer with a handheld pallet jack was hard work. Plus, the drivers were often cranky after battling Wyoming’s endless headwinds on long hauls across the state’s vast expanses.
Nathan was older than me (no one knew his exact age – he told us he was born on a leap year and was about 12 years old). He grew up on a nearby ranch and never went to college. His parents died decades ago and left him with crippling property taxes and mortgages on the family property. He ended up at Walmart after he was laid off from a local lumber factory when the company folded without notice and left the workers without their last paycheck.
Nathan firmly believed that any form of federal intervention in his personal life was “communism.” His idea of foreign policy was to “blast the Middle East into one big, gleaming sheet of glass.”
That evening, the truck driver informed Nathan and I that we had to move pallets that belonged to another store to access our freight. Walmart was cutting down on mileage and truck routes, and the trailers were packed to the breaking point with deliveries. As a result, we often had to play a strenuous game of musical chairs with pallets to get our freight unloaded.
That day, our only option was to haul the pallets down a long narrow hall lined with 50lb bags of dog food, through a swinging door, and into the meat preparation room.
Our shift was nearly over. The driver was pacing around the backroom, shouting at us to get the trailer unloaded before his hair turned gray.
“Screw the rules,” Nathan said, “Let’s leave the other store’s pallets right here and get the job done before the driver has a coronary.”
I disagreed and insisted that we follow the rules and take the freight to the meat prep room. I was not about to let this lifer tell me what to do.
“We have to do this my way,” I said, “I know what I’m doing!”
“You don’t know shit!” Nathan shouted back.
I immediately threatened to call a manager, and started down the hallway with my pallet. Nathan eventually followed behind, cursing me all the way to the meat room. I yanked my pallet hard through the swinging doors. The top layer of freight caught in the doorway and boxes of grape juice went flying. The floor in the meat room was wet and I slipped and fell back hard, the wind knocked out of me.
I lay there, my tailbone and my pride sore, water soaking my workpants. Nathan quietly came into the prep room. He asked if I was OK, gently pulled me to my feet, and helped me clean up.
Nathan never told anyone about my humiliation, and I never disrespected him again. Over the years, I learned that Nathan was quick to forgive, and would drop everything to assist anyone who needed help. Despite his not-so-politically-correct, rightwing remarks and jokes, Nathan greeted and talked to everyone he encountered with genuine respect and kindness, regardless of that person’s age, gender, or ethnicity. Soon we started to enjoy each other’s company at work.As a team we unloaded hundreds of trucks, stocked millions of cases of freight, and solved the endless daily crises that came up at work.
And eventually, I got the courage up to take out loans and finish my undergraduate studies at the local university.
I quit Walmart after my acceptance into a graduate program that offered free health insurance and paid a stipend comparable to what I made working full-time. My decision was motivated largely by a friendship I formed with another co-worker named Ryan. We hung out because we had a lot in common: we were both quiet, shared a birthday, were left-handed, and liked similar music and books.
After years of working in fast food, Ryan had made the decision to return to school and was working to fund his education. Despite the financial obstacles and his own personal fears, he took a big step to change his life. I had a lot of respect for him, and eventually my desire for him to return my admiration led me to change my life.
I don’t miss unloading trucks, but I do not regret the years I spent working at Walmart, especially because of the lessons my co-workers taught me: humility, patience, and respect for those scratching out a living in the low-paying retail sector. ■