Emily Dehart gave birth to her first child three months ago. But she and her husband, Andrew, won’t be celebrating Thanksgiving as a family of three for the first time this week. Andrew works at Walmart—and is scheduled to work on Thanksgiving day.
“I kinda got used to it,” Emily, who lives in of Cocoa Beach, Florida, told Fusion. “You just have to think of Thanksgiving on a different day. It’s sad. Because Target stays open, Walmart stays open. It’s all about the money.”
Emily should know. Up until Friday, she worked at Walmart too.
When she returned to work last week for the first time since giving birth, she found that her first day back at work after having her child was also her last. Emily developed a blood clot in her leg as a result of a delivery complication which broke off and went into her lungs. She then developed a pulmonary embolism, landing her in the hospital for a week.
So when Emily returned to Walmart, she said, she asked her manager if she could receive some sort of accommodation for her health condition—any kind of position that would involve fewer hours or less time on her feet and running back and forth through the store.
“They said it was impossible,” Emily said. “They said I could have a week off – but because I am not full-time, I didn’t have that much time to even take.” And so without any other option, Emily left her job.
Emily and Andrew are both members of OUR Walmart, a grassroots organization of current and former Walmart associates organizing for better treatment of Walmart employees – and, most concretely, attempting to get the retailer to agree to a minimum $15 an hour wage for its employees.
Andrew is one of the thousands of OUR Walmart members nationwide currently engaging in the Fast for $15, where participants take shifts fasting in the 15 days leading up to Black Friday to raise awareness for those Walmart employees who can’t buy quality food on the wages that they earn. He himself fasted for three days straight.
Andrew Dehart, who is scheduled for maintenance work on Thanksgiving, said he currently earns $9.50 an hour, not including benefits. When she was still employed at Walmart, Emily Dehart earned $9.70 an hour.
Over 1,400 people are participating in the Fast for $15, according to OUR Walmart, with protests and fasts occurring in at least eight cities from Florida to California. Walmart says that figure is overblown and that there have only been a handful of participants. Last week, Andrew and Emily went to New York City as part of the dozen OUR Walmart members who took their fast right to Walmart shareholder and heir Alice Walton’s New York apartment.
Going without food is “something we have experienced,” said Emily. “We did it to support everybody else. The people working at Walmart are going hungry every day. Honestly, I don’t think people know that Walmart pays so little,” she said.
“We know it takes quality associates to give our customers a great shopping experience,” Brian Nick, Senior Director of Corporate Communications for Walmart, told Fusion. "We are proud of our wages and benefits package. Full-time associates earn, on average, $13 an hour and also have access to 401K, cash bonuses, and health care benefits. Walmart is investing $2.7 billion in education and training over this year and next for associates.”
Nick points to a report done last year by Forbes that found that all the benefits offered to Walmart associated adds up to the equivalent of $4.50 an hour; thus, the average full-time hourly associate, they calculate, would earn $17.40 an hour in total compensation.
Emily said that now that the family has lost her income, her family depends on food stamps to be able to feed their family. Her husband’s employee discount does not extend to the food they need to feed their family.
“They give you a 10 percent discount on some food,” she said. “And it’s all unhealthy food. Deli food isn’t [included]. We actually don’t shop there. It’s too expensive.”
Which is why Nancy Reynolds, also of Cocoa Beach, has started a petition to change that. Currently, Whole Foods, Trader Joes, Target, and many other national grocery chains offer employees a discount on all food items. Walmart does not.
Nancy is a cashier at the Merritt Island, Florida Walmart store. (Asked to comment on Reynolds's involvement in the OUR Walmart organization, Nick said he did not know where Merritt Island is but that he had seen Reynolds identify herself as an associate in Florida publications.)
Reynolds is a mother, a grandmother, and a great-grandmother. And while she is scheduled to work both Thanksgiving day and Black Friday, she said she is not able to afford to shop at Walmart herself.
At Nancy’s store, she said, associates get a 10-percent discount on everything except for sale or clearance items from about the 19th of November to December 31 at midnight. “Everyone saves up all year and then stocks up so they can eat better,” she said. “They buy canned goods and things like that. If we could get that discount year-round and save a little money, we could actually shop there year-round. A lot of people who work here have to go to churches [to receive food from food pantries]. I’ve done that myself.”
At the Walmart Nancy works at, she says, the only foods that employees can regularly get a discount on our “junk food – potato chips and things like that – and potatoes and bananas. And coffee and tea. And that’s it. None of the fresh vegetables…or even the canned vegetables,” she said.
Hence Nancy’s petition, which has since garnered more than 14,000 signatures.
“The young people, they need it,” Nancy says of the $15 an hour wage and the ability to work full-time if desired, another condition for which the OUR Walmart members are organizing.
“The best way to classify the associate discount is 10 percent on all merchandise all year long,” says Nick. “This does not include all food, but fresh fruits and vegetables are included…During the holiday season, we extend it to fresh foods, like I just mentioned, but during the rest of the year it’s limited to just certain grocery items.”
The spokesman added that the 1.3 million Walmart associates nationwide saved more than $500 million through the company’s discount program last year.
“There are a lot of activists and a lot of people being paid by the unions and looking to speak for the associates, but our associates speak for themselves – and they do, through our open door policies to speak with managers regarding their wages, scheduling, and benefits,” notes Nick. “We would put our compensation package up against anyone else in the retail industry.”
(“No one is being paid [to protest]. Typical Walmart lie,” Dan Schladerman, co-founder of OUR Walmart tells Fusion in reply.)
Andrew Dehart, wishes that those in corporate at Walmart understood that not only are so many Walmart families not able to sit down with their families this Thanksgiving, but that as a result of the company’s policies, so many can’t afford to put food on their Thanksgiving table.
If Walmart were able to offer better pay and hours to its employees, Andrew said, it would be a pretty good place to work. “People would actually be able to go there to shop who actually work for the company. To be able to have the things again that they don’t have, for all these people struggling to just get by.”
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.