Workers protest pay, conditions at Walmart warehouses

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    Victor Caudillo loads Walmart trucks at a warehouse operated by logistics company NFI in Mira Loma. But he doesn’t actually work for Walmart or NFI. A company called Warestaff signs his checks and Caudillo says they cut his hours drastically after he went on strike to protest working conditions.

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    Victor Caudillo holds his son, Noah, in the living room of his apartment in San Bernardino, California. Caudillo, 20, says supporting his family of four, a little brother and a cousin, all on part-time warehouse work that pays $8 an hour is a struggle. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

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    Mary Revolorio stays at home with her two kids while Victor Caudillo works at a Walmart-contracted warehouse unloading trucks. Revolorio says it’s a struggle to find enough food to feed their family and worries how they’ll get by with what little Caudillo brings home. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

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    A Walmart truck pulls into a contracted warehouse facility operated by NFI in Mira Loma, California. Outside the facility, union organizers pass out flyers to workers headed in for the afternoon shift at the warehouse. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

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    A worker in a warehouse that moves Walmart goods.

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    Javier Rodriguez drives a forklift at the NFI cross-dock facility in Mira Loma, California. He makes $10 an hour and has had to get more warehouse work to support his family. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

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    Signs around the NFI cross dock remind workers of safety policies in both English and Spanish. Workers have complained that the equipment used to move Walmart merchandise is substandard and dangerous. But NFI supervisor Ed Jankay says that broken equipment is fixed promptly and that safe conditions benefit everyone, not just low-wage workers. Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace

There’s been plenty written over the years about poor wages and working conditions in Asian countries, such as China, that produce cheap consumer products for American retailers like Walmart.

But some questionable labor conditions exist right here at home, where those imported goods are funneled into the domestic supply chain. Labor groups and regulators point in particular to problems faced by temporary workers who staff huge warehouses that line freeways and rail yards outside Los Angeles and Chicago.

Southern California’s Inland Empire -- a vast desert region east of Los Angeles -- is home to the largest number of warehousing facilities in the country, including several that move goods for Walmart. The area’s boom as a national logistics hub over the past several decades has been facilitated by cheap land for development; access to freeways and rail lines, along with extensive public-private investment in transportation infrastructure; massive imports from Asia that need to get to distribution centers and big-box stores inland; and a base of low-skilled blue-collar workers available to do the warehousing and truck-driving work required.

Walmart's warehouse No. 6909 is located in Mira Loma, Calif., about 50 miles east of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach. A steady stream of Walmart and Sam’s Club trucks roll past on their way to the loading docks inside.

Javier Rodriguez is a temporary worker at the warehouse. He’s worked there for more than a year. Looking past the guard house at the gate, he describes operations inside: “What’s arriving is merchandise for different Walmart destinations,” he says, “and our job here is to sort it and send it in trailers all over the United States.”

The warehouse moves a wide range of consumer goods: everything from toys and baby furniture, to exercise equipment, linens and electronics.

The facility is what’s called a cross-dock. Goods -- mostly imported from Asia -- come in from vendors like Mattel. Workers run them across the loading dock, then reload them right away into Walmart trucks.

Javier Rodriguez makes $10 an hour as a forklift driver. He has four children and a wife at home, so once his shift is over in the late afternoon, he goes to a second warehouse job to make more money to support his family. 

Victor Caudillo works in the same warehouse as Rodriguez. He lives in a rundown apartment in nearby San Bernardino, Calif., with his wife, two children, a brother and cousin.

Caudillo is what’s called a ‘lumper’ -- he loads Walmart boxes by hand. That’s an $8 an hour job, but he says he rarely gets 40 hours. “I get 32, 34 hours a week, taking home probably $190-$220 max.”

Caudillo’s been at the warehouse for one year, and like Rodriguez, he’s classified as a temporary worker. So he doesn’t get paid sick time, vacation, health or retirement benefits. Plus, he says, the work is grueling -- and not very safe.

“Our ramps -- your wheels will get caught and all your freight falls,” he says. “Our carts, sometimes the wheels don’t even work, with that extra thousand pounds on it -- impossible to pull. Our water, sometimes we don’t even have water.”

The employment structure at the warehouse where Caudillo and Rodriguez work is complex. The facility moves goods exclusively for Walmart. But it isn’t owned or operated by the giant retailer. Instead, Walmart contracts with a New Jersey-based company called NFI to run the warehouse. NFI in turn contracts with temporary-staffing agencies to hire and supervise the workers -- several hundred of them.

“The [staffing] agency is Warestaff," Javier Rodriguez explains. "But Warestaff works for NFI, and NFI works for Walmart.”

Rodriguez, Caudillo and other workers are organizing for better wages and conditions, with help from the union coalition Change to Win, which includes the Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Service Employees International Union, and the Farm Workers. The warehouse workers’ local group in Southern California -- called Warehouse Workers United -- has staged strikes, and charges that workers have been fired or had their hours cut in retaliation.

NFI spokeswoman Kathleen Hessert responds that the charges are fabrications to support the group’s union effort. “Absolutely NFI says there has been no retaliation,” Hessert says. “Whether something has been damaged or not, obviously when you’re moving a lot of product, there is going to be equipment that is damaged. Lack of water? Totally false.”

Hessert confirms that 90 percent of the workers in the NFI Mira Loma warehouse are temps.

And the dramatic rise in ‘permanent-temp’ workers across the warehousing industry, specifically in California’s Inland Empire, is seen as a problem by regulators who monitor the industry. They say these ‘perma-temps’ are shuffled between staffing agencies that sometimes underpay them or don’t provide proper equipment. If the workers complain, they’re easily replaced.

“Many of the workers my office has interviewed are characterized as ‘temp workers’ but they have been working for four, six, eight years for the same warehouse,” says California Labor Commissioner Julie Su. Last year, her department issued more than $1 million in fines for wage theft and other violations against staffing agencies on contract to provide workers at another Walmart warehouse in Mira Loma. That warehouse is operated by Schneider Logistics of Wisconsin.

“The use of this kind of subcontracting is meant certainly to cut costs, but also to make it more challenging to enforce the law in those workplaces,” says Su. “And it creates a very unstable, contingent workforce that is very vulnerable to abuse.”

Warehouse labor groups from Southern California and Chicago traveled to Walmart’s home office in Bentonville, Ark., last month. They were there to protest over wages and working conditions at a nationwide stakeholders meeting Walmart hosts in town, and to deliver a box of petitions signed by supporters. The workers got a meeting with company executives -- their first ever.

Walmart V.P. of Communications David Tovar provided this prepared statement to Marketplace after the meeting: “Recently, some workers at third-party warehouses we use to move merchandise have raised some concerns about their work environment. And even though these workers aren’t employed by Walmart directly, we’re taking these allegations very seriously. The fact is, we hold all of our service providers to high standards, and remain committed to ensuring that workers throughout our supply chain are treated with dignity and respect.”

Walmart says it is inspecting and auditing these third-party warehouses, and hopes to continue its dialogue with the workers' groups.

Back in Southern California, temporary warehouse worker Victor Caudillo says he’d welcome more dignity and respect from the companies up the supply chain, including Walmart. His wife, Mary, would welcome a higher paycheck, along with full-time hours and benefits.

“We get help from family, and that’s good, but they have bills to pay, too. During the end of the month it gets crazy with food -- we’re on the last bits, we eat Top Ramens or cereals. It gets hard.”

At this point in the interview, two-and-a-half-year-old Ayleen climbs up on her mother’s lap and has the last word. “Want to go to Walmart,” she says. Mary explains: “She’s been asking her dad to take her to Walmart to buy a Buzz Lightyear toy.”

At a local Walmart, a Buzz Lightyear toy will set them back $14.97. That’s almost two hours’ work for Victor Caudillo, moving boxes for Walmart.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at whether ‘permatemping’ in the warehouses is designed to keep costs low at Walmart and other big-box retailers. Read the story here.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.
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It is unfortunate that Walmart seeks to take advantage of the people who need work and help create an underclass of people in this country while buying everything in 3rd world countries where people are also abused for the sake of profit. What is even more unfortunate is that we, the consumers continue to buy from Walmart. Why not stop buying from them? Lose Walmart and support the locally owned stroes in your area! Instead of thinking about buying at the cheapest price we should think long term and support the retailers who are responsible to communities as well as shareholders.

This is an excellant program series. Large retailers' like Walmart and Target have had a hugh impact on the socio-economic conditions of our communities over the past 30 years. The issues surrounding giant retailers like this are, the proverbial "elephants in the room" that need to be adddressed. Walmart's negative effect on our economy manifests itself other ways that are not always so obvious. For instance, the state of California alone pays about $3 billion in social subsides to workers in the retail sector (stats from UC Berkely's dept. of economics retail study). Just another way that communities subsidize these large corporations and allow them to continue to reap enormous profits. When retailers are allowed to pay very low wages and offer no benefits; it effects all of us.

Is Walmart really such an evil empire that it constantly deserves to be maligned for terrible treatment of their employees or is it possible they are just the largest target to throw rocks at? I suspect they comply with all state and federal employment laws with few exceptions. I do not doubt that raising a family of four on a Walmart salary for a non- management position requires subsidies but then again the typical non-management positions are almost exclusively low skilled or entry level. Don't blame Walmart for paying prevailing wages for the skills they seek. If your beef is with minimum wage laws then take that up with lawmakers.

Obviously, all workers should have safe working conditions and adequate wages. It's not a third world country. BUT it's not a third world country and controlling one's reproductive system could not be any easier. The Planned Parenthood provides free contraceptives for those in need. If you don't want to use birth control, have glass of water instead of having sex! Having no education or special skills, especially in today's economy, but popping a new child every year or two, is a recipe for disaster. It doesn't require a math genius to realize that feeding a mouth of two is less expensive than feeding six people.

obviously, you don't work for $8 to $10 an hour. Rent alone can cost you a whole month's paycheck. This family has 2 chilldren, the average for an "American" family. Unfortunately, the lack of education and special skills is not just a problem for third world countries but is becoming a greater problem in the US just look at our school systems. If the workers had access to health care, vacation time, and sick days, maybe they would have time to get a better education instead of working 2 jobs just to feed their family.

"Just have a glass of water?" Your grasp of the impoverished of our country is limited indeed. Have some compassion my friend.

If they want to use Planned Parenthood they better stock up now. Romney and the republicans have promised to defund the program and just because they lost the presidential election doesn't mean they won't continue their efforts. They also oppose any workers benefits so I would imagine the "party of no" will block any efforts to improve the working conditions at Walmart either. I guess when these folks really need help us taxpayers will pick up the bill while the shareholders continue to make record profits. It is a shame that these practices are condoned in a country as great as the USA.

Of course all workers should have safe working conditions and healthcare for themselves and their families. But to me, your story misses the element of personal responsibility. Before you decide to have a family, evaluate your financial situation. If you want to make a decent salary, learn a trade or get an education. Just because you chose to marry and have children does not, in my view, entitle you to a high wage for a job that requires minimal skills.
Of course you should have water. Of course you should have respect. Of course you should be safe. But take responsibility for your life choices.

All so simple. Perhaps a bit oversimplified.

Families happen. Kids as young as 15 can have children. Teenagers aren't known for being responsible or thinking about the long term. Society is only partially dealing with the problem of teen pregnancies; many people have very strong views on how to deal with this problem. Once people have made "mistakes" or had lapses in responsibility how do they get out of the hole they've dug? One of the problems with permanent temporary work is it's very hard to move up even if people are making responsible decisions.


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