Quick Hit Ellyn Fortino Thursday October 24th, 2013, 2:57pm

Chicago Clergy Leaders Join The Push For Better Wages, Workplace Conditions At Walmart (VIDEO)

A group of Chicago clergy leaders gathered with Walmart employees and their supporters Wednesday, calling on the mega retailer to improve work conditions and provide better wages so its workers do not have to rely on public assistance programs to cover their basic needs.

At a news conference outside a Chatham neighborhood Walmart, pastor Walter Turner with the New Spiritual Light Missionary Baptist Church on the South Side said the community will not tolerate the world's largest retailer "pimping the employees."

"Walmart workers deserve to be treated with dignity and respect," he said. "They deserve better working conditions which ensure they earn at least $25,000 a year, so they can take care of their family and not have to rely upon taxpayer dollars to survive."

Some 475,000 Walmart associates earn more than $25,000 a year, Walmart CEO Bill Simon said in a presentation at Goldman Sachs' annual global retailing conference in September. Walmart has some 1.3 million employees across the country, meaning about 825,000 workers are potentially making less than $25,000 a year. Meanwhile, Walmart raked in $17 billion in profits last year.

Back in September, a number of Walmart employees and their supporters rallied in Chicago, urging the retail giant to boost full-time employees' annual earnings to at least $25,000, a salary they say would allow workers to cover their basic needs and contribute to the economy. Walmart associates in the Chicago area and across the country have been calling on the company to increase its hours and wages, improve working conditions and stop retaliating against employees who speak out against the company's practices.

The faith leaders and other supporters at Wednesday's gathering said Walmart's low wages force their workers to seek public aid in order to pay for life's necessities. They pointed to data in a May congressional report, prepared for the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, which shows just one 300-person Walmart Supercenter store in Wisconsin, for example, likely costs taxpayers more than $900,000 per year on public assistance programs to supplement the retail workers' low wages.

Ora Williams, 20, who works part-time at Walmart in Evergreen Park, said she gets paid $9.55 an hour. Williams, who relies on public food aid to help pay for her groceries, said she has repeatedly asked the store's management for more permanent hours so she can better afford her necessities, but she has reportedly been told 'no' on multiple occasions. In some instances, however, Williams said she has received some extra hours, but "then they snatch them right back from you whenever they feel like."

"I feel used," she said. "If I voice my opinion and ask you ... 'I would like to work more hours,' then you give it to me for a week, and then snatch it right back.”

Charmaine Givens-Thomas, 61, another Evergreen Park Walmart worker, has been employed with the company for eight years, yet she makes less than $25,000 a year. As such, Givens-Thomas depends on public assistance for health care.

"We just want a liveable wage," she said. "We're asking them for $25,000, which is just above the poverty level, and I think Walmart is quite capable of doing that. We're talking about a multi-billion corporation. We are the ones that are dealing with the customers on a daily basis, and we're doing the hard work ... and I think we’re quite deserving."

If retailers with more than 1,000 employees provided their full-time, year-round workers with base earnings of at least $25,000 annually, some 1.5 million retail workers and their families would emerge from living in or near poverty, according to a 2012 "Retail's Hidden Potential" report from Demos, a public policy organization. This move would also increase retail sales, add to economic growth and create more than 100,000 new jobs, according to the report's author Catherine Ruetschlin, a Demos policy analyst.

Here's more from Givens-Thomas:

The Rev. J. Leon Thorn, pastor of St. James A.M.E. Church on Chicago's South Side, said a number of community meetings about the proposed Chatham neighborhood Walmart were held at local churches prior to the Supercenter's opening in January 2012.

"We all had very high hopes that we would have a company coming in that would (support) the community, that would give jobs that would allow people to at least make a decent wage and some benefits," he said. "We fought (so) hard to get it here. We opened our church doors. We opened our lives. We opened our community. And this is the type of treatment our people get." 

He went on to say that the store is exploiting South Side residents who work at the establishment.

"You've developed another plantation situation. That is not acceptable," Thorn stressed. "We will not continue to allow that to happen to us."

Here's more from Thorn and Turner:

Another employee, Myron Byrd, 45, who works full-time on the night shift at the Walmart Neighborhood Market in Lakeview, said he gets paid $9.75 an hour. That means his typical paycheck is just a little more than $500, he said.

"Only high schoolers get this kind of money, and I'm working twice as hard as them," he said. "Nobody else is taking care of me but me, and I need that [$25,000] wage so I can be stable and say, 'I'm finally doing something to help the community and to help me.'"

The fight for better wages and working conditions at Walmart is just one of many battles against big box retailers. Also on Wednesday, Home Depot warehouse workers in Romeoville filed a lawsuit in federal court involving the ongoing instances of alleged wage theft and other labor law violations. The workers, who are employed by the staffing agency Prologistix, say they were forced to work off the clock, paid less than minimum wage and denied overtime pay after working 40 hours.

In recent years, Prologistix has been the center of at least two other similar lawsuits in the state, the workers say. The suit also named Home Depot for its alleged failure to "maintain and remit its own set of time and payroll records."

Warehouse Workers for Justice, an organization supporting the plaintiffs, says large retailers commonly use staffing agencies to employ their warehouse workers. But according to the organization, this reliance on temp agencies often leads to labor law violations. Such violations have also been documented at Walmart distribution centers, the group says. Check out Progress Illinois' coverage of wage theft and other issues at Walmart warehouses here, here and here.

"We call on Home Depot to fix this and make sure the law is followed in their warehouses," said Mark Meinster, campaign director for Warehouse Workers for Justice, in a statement. "Low prices at the stores shouldn't mean wage theft in the warehouse."

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