Like many Americans who work for hourly wages these days, Lakita Hicks has a problem: She doesn’t have enough reliable working hours. The 31-year-old, who works at a Burger King in Tampa, Florida, says on her first day on the job nearly two years ago her manager told her to go home moments after she arrived. They didn’t need her that day after all, they told her. Sorry for the inconvenience.
“A few weeks ago, I was getting 37-38 hours a week. Now I’m getting 23 hours,” said Hicks, whose teenage son lives with her aunt while she rooms in an extended-stay hotel. She earns Florida’s $7.93 minimum hourly wage, or about $700 a month based on her current schedule, insufficient even to qualify for assisted housing. “We have to worry about getting the same schedule every week, and whether we can pay the light bill.”
Hicks is one of the estimated 7 million working Americans who struggle to get full-time work from employers who increasingly rely on part-timers to avoid the costs associated with offering health insurance and other benefits that full-time employees generally receive.
A few extra dollars per hour would help, say workers and labor rights advocates. Hicks is a member of the Fight for $15 movement of fast-food workers who are demanding that employers like Burger King and McDonald’s give their lowest-paid employees a raise.
The problem of erratic and unreliable work schedules -- and wages so low employees have to rely on taxpayer-funded public assistance -- was the topic of a congressional briefing Tuesday in Washington. Outspoken progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., set her sights on Walmart when she and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., called on employers to increase wages and improve work scheduling practices for the nation's hourly wage workers.
“Hardworking men and women across the country want a fighting chance to build a future for themselves and their families,” Warren said during Tuesday’s briefing in which she lauded three bills aimed at improving the conditions of hourly wage workers -- bills that won’t pass a Republican Congress. “We need to give workers this chance by raising the minimum wage, providing some basic fairness in scheduling and fighting for equal pay for equal work."
The lawmakers met with Walmart workers who have joined OUR Walmart, a union-supported group planning nationwide Black Friday protests next week for the third consecutive year. The group says this year will see another, larger round of nationwide protests or strikes targeting the chain, headquartered in Bentonville, Arkansas. Last year, Walmart said some 22 million American shoppers visited its outlets during its Black Friday sales event, filling shopping carts and company coffers.
“There’s a lot more interest [in participating in the protests] in my store and in stores across the country this year,” Canatare Davunt, a 30-year-old OUR Walmart member and employee of an Apple Valley, Minnesota, Walmart outlet, said following the briefing. Davunt said despite working at Walmart for more than two years, she’s currently drawing 16 hours a week at the customer-service counter. Her colleagues, she said, can see as much as 10 hours of shift fluctuation, 28 to 38 hours a week. For someone like Davunt making $10.10 an hour, losing hours can mean having to dig into the pantry for a forgotten package of Ramen noodles before the next payday.
Walmart claims on its website about 13 percent of its 1.3 million in-store hourly workers received promotions last year, and the average full-time hourly wage is $12.92. Walmart doesn’t disclose its average starting hourly rate or its average hourly pay excluding the promoted employees. And, the company has repeatedly dismissed the OUR Walmart organization as a group largely populated by unions and supporters, with a small number of employees.
OUR Walmart claims most of the company’s hourly workers make about $9 an hour in the U.S., including workers in states with a higher hourly minimum wage floor than the federal $7.25. Adjusted for inflation, today’s federal hourly minimum wage ($7.25) would have to be $9.66 to $12.27 to meet the same rate enjoyed by hourly workers in the early 1970s. The current national minimum wage is the equivalent of $6.32 an hour compared with spending power in 2007, the last time Congress raised the wage floor. The slow pace of congressional action has supported a raft of wage hikes in the states and some cities. Amid Republican gains in the Nov. 4 midterm elections, four states -- including Wamart's home state of Arkansas -- voted to increase wage floors above the federal rate.
The briefing comes as Democrats are pushing for two pieces of legislation that would help hourly wage workers. Warren and Miller used Tuesday’s event to urge momentum in support of the measures, which business groups oppose.
The Schedules That Work Act (H.R. 5159), introduced in July by Miller, would require employers to provide more predictable and stable work schedules and pay workers extra if they’re taken off the clock without notice or are called in to work unexpectedly within 24 hours. The Fair Minimum Wage Act (S. 460), introduced last year by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, would gradually raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 over two years after the bill is passed. A third bill is designed to amend the country's labor law (S. 84) to prevent gender-based wage discrimination, introduced last year by Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md. None of the bills has garnered the support of Republicans, which will hold majorities in both legislative houses as a result of the Nov. 4 midterm elections.