Walmart Wages on Eastern Shore Leave Many Employees Below Poverty Line

Special to Capital News Service

Brooke Campbell, a student at Chesapeake College on the Eastern Shore, lost her job two months ago. Every day since, she’s sat at her computer filling out job applications on line — but only one employer has even acknowledged her.

So Campbell, 21, says she’d be delighted to work at Walmart when a new store opens in Denton, Caroline County, this fall — even at wages of less than $12 an hour.

“I’ve never made anything over $7.55,” Campbell said. “A $12 wage? Hell yeah.”

Around the country, anti-Walmart campaigns have condemned the giant retailer for paying low wages.

But Denton, the Caroline County seat, needs jobs. The unemployment rate is higher than the state average and empty storefronts plague downtown. Walmart will offer 600 jobs. And Campbell wants one of them.

“My little brother makes $13 at Wawa. He’s made more than I’ve ever made,” Campbell said. “If Walmart had that wage, that’d be awesome, even if it’s not that much in the long run.”

On its corporate Web site, Walmart says its pays full-time employees in Maryland an average hourly wage of $11.83.

A recent study found that an adult living alone in Caroline must earn $11.34 an hour to pay for the basics, which include food, housing, transportation, health care and other essentials but not cell phone or cable. The basic wage needed goes up to $17.68 for one working adult with a preschooler. Add an infant, and it’s $21.81.

This study, known as the Self Sufficiency Standard, was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington School of Social Work.

Making Change at Walmart, a national campaign supported by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, disputes Walmart’s assertion that it pays its Maryland full-time workers an average of $11.83 an hour.

“An employee who works Walmart’s definition of full-time (34 hours per week) makes just $15,500 per year,” the union says. “That means hundreds of thousands of people who work full-time at Walmart still live below the poverty line.”

Walmart declined repeated requests for interviews.

“Walmart always pays very low wages. I guess that’s better than no wages,” said former Maryland Gov. Harry Hughes, who lives in Denton. “But it would be much better if they pay more.”

Last year, Caroline County’s unemployment rate was 8.8 percent, compared to 7.0 percent for the state as a whole.

Caroline County is landlocked, without any waterfront to attract business and tourists — and money. Much of the county’s land is used for farming and industry. Denton, a small, rural town with historic buildings, rests on a hill overlooking the Choptank River.

According to census data, Caroline County’s median household income is just under $60,000. But more than 11 percent of the population earns less than the federal poverty level of $19,090 for a family of three.

“The state’s doing better than us on unemployment and a lot of other things in general,” Denton Mayor Dennis Porter said. “I mean, we’re not the most affluent area here.”

Some observers are skeptical of wage estimates such as those in the University of Washington self-sufficiency study.

“Quite honestly, when you look at that county, that wage is just not realistic,” said Memo Diriker, the founding director of the Business, Economic, and Community Outreach Network, a business and economic research and consulting group at Salisbury University.

“You’re not going to find that wage in that county unless you’re highly skilled. Those kind of jobs in rural areas do not exist,” Diriker said. “There’s no way that I can imagine in Caroline County an organization that is going to give $17 an hour” for unskilled labor.

But the author of the Self-Sufficiency Standard, Diana Pearce, said her research is not based on salaries paid. “We do not set the standard at what the employer pays for people with few skills,” Pearce said. “We set it at the minimally adequate level to meet basic needs, so we are ‘blind’ to what employers are paying when we set it.”

For comparison, Maryland’s Department of Business and Economic Development determined that Caroline County customer service representatives and secretaries earned a median hourly wage of $14 an hour in 2011. Bookkeeping and accounting clerks earned $15.75 an hour.

Don Mulrine, Denton’s town administrator, says he welcomes Walmart and its jobs, no matter the wages. They can serve as “fill-in jobs,” he said, until employees find better careers elsewhere.

Walmart, he said, has “very good jobs, and they can work up the ladder to be assistant managers, department managers, and so on, where they can get the higher values of dollar skills per hour, as well as the benefits that they are attributed to.”

But, he also said the management team for the new store is coming from outside the county. Future managers have already been selected and are being trained at other Walmarts nearby.

Construction of the 152,888-square-foot store began on Legion Road in September 2011, and Walmart is set to open at the end of October off Route 404, less than two miles from Market Street, Denton’s main street.

Eight vacant storefronts sit there now in downtown Denton. Merchants, including Michael Owens, owner of Color ‘N’ Clay, think reviving downtown will help residents achieve their financial goals.

A December 2009 study by Arnett Muldrow & Associates, Ltd. analyzed Denton’s economic potential and proposed a new marketing strategy that main street manager Ann Jacobs has already launched with the help of local businesses.

“There’s more to having a small business and being involved in the community than just earning wages. We have a responsibility to the community,” said Owens, who was named the 2012 Entrepreneur of the Year by Caroline County Chamber of Commerce.

Diriker, at Salisbury University, said he understands that some people view Walmart as a challenge to Denton’s retailers.

“Some smaller stores that cannot compete may have to leave,” Diriker said. “But the community is in no position to thrive if it says no to Walmart.”

Mark Peach, 48, who is self-employed, has lived in Denton since 2000. He said he would “cut my two legs off” before taking a job at Walmart because of the company’s “animus” toward unions and low wages. Twelve dollars an hour doesn’t go far, even in a rural area like Caroline County, he said.

“If you’re looking to add a supplemental income to what you already have, that’s fine. If you’re retired and you want to add to your income, that’s fine too,” Peach said. “But I don’t think people could live off that.

But for Danielle Smith, a senior at North Caroline High School in Ridgley, Walmart would be fine for a summer job.

“I would absolutely love $12 an hour,” she said. “It’s close to my house and it would be a raise up from $8.10 I get at Subway now.”