Gawker first reported that the Walton family-owned conglomerate, valued at nearly $250 billion and under increasing criticism for paying low wages and scant benefits to its employees, issued a cheery edict on its internal server requiring “associates to wear white or navy blue collared shirts with khaki or black pants, capris, or skirts and closed toe shoes in any color,” complemented by a navy blue Walmart vest provided by the company. The point, wrote human resources manager Barbara Simone, a “single mom, from a small town” who climbed the Walmart ranks, is to “help customers easily find us” and “help drive teamwork, customer service, and sales.”
Although Simone clarified that compliant apparel need not be brand new or purchased directly from Walmart, she included a convenient link for shopping with “your associate discount” (of 10 percent). The items range from $7.00 for a men’s polo shirt to $38.00 for a two-pack of men’s work pants. Employees responded that they could not afford to purchase regulation attire and that other workplace issues, such as overheated sales floors and understocked shelves, were more pressing.
On its website, Walmart claims to employ “1.3 million U.S. associates at more than 4,800 stores” and pay an “average, full-time hourly wage” of $12.92. But those earning closer to the minimum wage may fall below or just above the federal poverty level. Due in part to the rise of the low-wage service sector, over 7 percent of adult workers — and 16.6 percent for part-time employees — were living in poverty in 2012, according to the U.S. census.
A company’s lowest-paid employees can still be required to adhere to a dress code. Because the Walmart-branded vest is provided at no cost to associates, the unreimbursed uniforms are lawful under federal and state employment regulations — the general rule of thumb being: Could you reasonably wear your uniform outside work hours?
Assuming 1 million employees purchase three compliant top-and-bottom sets from Walmart using their employee discount, the company could gross between $51 million (low-end uniform option) and $78 million (high-end option) in sales, according to an estimate by the worker advocacy group Our Walmart. By contrast, Our Walmart points out that “the Waltons (Rob, Jim, Alice, Christy) could buy 1 million store employees 3 uniform sets with just six days of their Walmart dividends.”