The Walmart Society: A Look at America’s New Underclass

In this extract from Alan Friedman’s new book, This Is Not America (Biteback Publishing), we meet Nita Fischer, a single mother who was fired by Walmart when she became pregnant.

August 13, 2017 – (…) I was working for Walmart in the deli department, serving food, making salads, cooking food, slicing meat. I had started on $8.15 an hour back in the summer of 2014 and I really liked the job. Then I got pregnant, and at the end of 2015 there were a few times where I thought I was losing my baby and so I’d go to a hospital and get checked out, or I’d be very, very sick and I’d have to go see my doctor and get help, and it would get in the way of work. But I’d always bring written medical excuses, and then they’d go and tell me that Walmart doesn’t take medical excuses. I begged them to move me to another department because the food smells and everything was making me nauseous. But they ended up firing me instead. They treated me like dirt and fired me when I got pregnant.

Nita Fischer sits forward on the edge of her worn beige sofa, in a tiny and cluttered living room that is stuffed with junk, with the baby crib, the sofa and the TV set, with piles of dirty clothes and baby toys, prescription medicines and papers scattered across the floor. She is a pale and overweight young woman with a plain face, brown hair and a faint voice. When she speaks she seems to drift off, losing focus. She looks depressed, at times despondent. But she laces her utterances with an occasional giggle, a self-deprecating smile, and it is then that the true pathos of her life condition emerges. The fake pinewood panelling behind her is decorated with stick-on Disney princess decals and one small golden crucifix. The kitchen sink is stacked with filthy dishes. Detritus is everywhere.

We are in a tiny, grey clapboard hovel in a poor section of Lake Charles, Louisiana, a coastal town of just over 75,000 people where nearly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. Each of the dozen or so grey prefab houses on the strip is the same, with a small air conditioner sticking out of one of its windows, chipped and peeling sidings and a small car out front. We are less than twenty feet from the railroad tracks on West Sallier Street in Lake Charles.

This area of south-western Louisiana – a swathe of land that runs from Port Arthur in eastern Texas along the Gulf of Mexico and toward Lafayette, is surrounded by huge and monstrous refineries and petrochemical plants that have gouged away much of the natural beauty. Lake Charles, although also surrounded by the petrochemicals industry, has built a couple of modern skyscraper casino resorts to try to cash in on the gaming and tourism industries. The bigger one, the 26-storey L’Auberge Casino Resort, employs 2,400 workers. Nearby oil refineries and a liquefied natural gas terminal and shopping malls make up much of the rest of the economy. In fact, the city’s economy is sustained by the oil and gas sector, by tourism and by large-scale shopping malls with huge warehouse-style supermarkets like Walmart.

Nita Fischer is twenty-four years old. She is a single mother who says her husband, who worked on repairing air conditioners, ‘upped and ran off’ when he discovered she was pregnant. ‘He didn’t want a baby,’ says Nita. She never made it through college, although she did take some classes at nearby McNeese State University before dropping out. She didn’t finish college, but she did accumulate $36,000 of student debt.

At first, Nita Fischer was like many of Walmart’s two million employees, who are known as ‘associates’ inside the $482 billion company. She worked at Walmart, she shopped at Walmart and she lived near Walmart. Her wage increases were minimal, but over a period of eighteen months she did work her way up to a salary of $10.17 an hour. It was tough, but she managed to get by.

‘Everything was going perfectly until I got pregnant,’ says Nita.

She remembers clearly the day she was fired.

It was 15 January 2016. I went to work and I’m in the deli, doing my thing for an hour. I’m showing off a picture of the ultrasound of my baby because I had a medical appointment the day before. And then they call me to the office because I was off for two days because the night before that when I was closing I had a little accident at work. I slipped and the sink hit my tummy real good and so I told the management and they said I should go to the hospital and get checked out. And everything was fine, but then I was off for two days after the accident and then the next day I get fired! At first I thought they would call me into the office, talk to me about the accident that happened, but they pretty much told me I’m fired and that I can reapply in ninety days. The thing is they knew how far long I was. I was six or seven months pregnant by then.

At this point, based on Nita’s recollection and confirmation from her pro bono lawyers, she asked the assistant manager at the Walmart store why she was being fired.

They had pulled me into the office and they’re like saying: ‘You know why you’re here, right?’ And I’m like: ‘No.’ And they’re like: ‘Well, we have to let you go.’ And I’m like: ‘Why?’ And they’re like: ‘Your absences.’ I’m like: ‘Really? These were medically excused absences. Really? So in other words you’re firing me because I’m pregnant, because I have medical excuses for all of my absences.’ And then they’re like: ‘Well, Walmart doesn’t take medical excuses.’ And I’m like: ‘That’s bull crap.’

The Walmart management told Nita that she would have been fine if she had had her leave of absence papers finished for her maternity leave. Through no fault of her own, the leave of absence paperwork was not returned to her by 15 January.

Nita found herself suddenly without any income, and in less than three months she was due to give birth. But she still waited the ninety days and filed an application for a new job at another Walmart branch, and she was hired, and put back on a $9 an hour salary as a fresh starter. She is meanwhile bringing action before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the mammoth Walmart for unfair dismissal. But her condition today, with a newborn baby, is significantly worse than it was before she was fired by Walmart.

Nita Fischer has fallen into the poverty trap, and she and her baby are living below the poverty threshold. She is now an official member of the working poor and has been forced to get food stamps and Medicaid and declare personal bankruptcy. She has $36,000 of student debt and $21,000 of credit card bills that she could not pay back. Her utility bills have not been paid for many months. Her parents try to help her out with the rent, but her father is an out-of-work tugboat captain and her mother makes about $600 a month doing part-time work at a neighbourhood church.

Nita says she is currently struggling on about $1,100 of gross pay a month from Walmart. Her rent costs $395 a month, her monthly bankruptcy settlement payment costs a further $400 a month, and her car insurance costs another $402 a month. The water and electricity bills, around $90 a month, ‘just sit there and don’t get paid’, says Nita. Some of the deficit is made up by contributions from her mother.

Nita Fischer, with one child, is now officially below the poverty line. She does not have enough money to buy food for her baby. She says her own daily lunch usually consists of a bowl of cereal or a pint of ice cream. To feed her baby she has had to seek welfare benefits under a federal programme called WIC, which stands for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children. WIC helps low-income pregnant women and infants and children under the age of five.

Nita gets $279 worth of food stamps each month and uses all of them, of course, at Walmart. ‘I get off work,’ she says, ‘and I need some food or milk, so I just go shopping with my food stamps back at Walmart.’ (…)