Video by Mariya Pylayev
Walmart has more workers than European countries like Latvia, Macedonia and Slovenia have people. But what's it really like to be one of the 2.2. million associates employed by the retail giant?
"At Walmart, everyone is always standing," said Thirumang "Venke" Venkatraman, the face of the Walmart in Kearny, N.J. Venkatraman is a Walmart greeter and recently spoke to AOL Jobs about his working life during one of his shifts. (The company's communications department hand-picked the greeter and made him available to AOL Jobs.) His job description asks him to provide a sunny disposition to welcome customers, and perhaps more crucially, cross-check customers' receipts as they leave the store. In total, there are four greeters at his Walmart with two on duty at any time, he said. That means these workers are responsible for overseeing traffic at a store that measures a total of 172,000 square feet.
Not surprisingly, Venkatraman said it's paramount for a Walmart greeter to "have it in their nature to love people." And an afternoon with Venkatraman made it clear he has such a quality in spades. At 72, the greeter is spry, bouncing around the Walmart entrance with the enthusiasm of a child at a candy store. And in his interview, he agreed the job aligns with his personality; Venkatraman is a native of Chennai, India, where he often spent time as a hiker so he could chat with others hiking through the Himalaya mountains. (A licensed accountant in India, Venkatraman said he came to New Jersey 25 years ago to first work in the Diamond industry in Manhattan.)
"Venke" said he doesn't form regular relationships with his customers, but there are familiar faces. They often come to him to "talk to me about their problems;" he's often told about "deaths in the family," and other heartaches. Or he's told about "rude checkout workers," and in some instances he passes along word to Walmart supervisors. But his work requires no prep time, other than "arriving pleasant, and leaving my problems at home."
How does he fight the boredom?
"Venke" said he's a "spiritual person," and during down time he turns to his notebook of devotional songs to privately chant the songs, many of which are inspired by Hindu saints. Is it tiring greeting people in seven-hour shifts? "Venke" exercises regularly, and so he rarely tires on the job, he said. Sometimes the police even stand side-by-side with the greeters, but they don't always have the endurance to actually last as long as he does, he noted.
As for his schedule, he works the 3-to-10 pm shift four or five days a week, and makes $12.14 an hour. The salary goes up every year he stays on the job. He's a part-time worker, having scaled back from full-time work so he could complete his MBA online with the University of Phoenix. (His favorite reference for business models while in graduate school? Sam Walton and his creation of the Walmart behemoth, of course.) He also took time to self-publish a book back in 2008 entitled, "Discovery of Spiritual India."
With many Walmart workers clamoring for greater rights and higher wages, Venkatraman had no comment on Walmart's pay scale or the labor activism. But he said "if an associate wants to be dissatisfied then the associate can be dissatisfied on the very first day at Walmart. But if you want to try, there's quite a lot of things that can be done." As an example, he said a colleague got help with paying for student fees while studying to become a social worker. But he said most associates need a second or third job to survive.
The 'last resort' for theft protection
According to Venkatraman, there's a dark side to the greeter job. "Walmart has great surveillance, but we are expected to protect property assets," he said. "We are the last resort." Indeed, he said he regularly has to confront challenges that force him to stand up to a thief or in the worst of circumstances, put himself in harm's way.
Just a few days before his interview, he said he had such a problem while cross-checking a customer's receipt. He noticed a very large music-recording device in a man's shopping cart wasn't mentioned on his receipt. And so he asked him, "Where is it?" After the customer feigned ignorance, Venkatraman continued pressing him -- "where is it?" -- until the customer finally agreed to put aside the recording device. The customer then then walked out of the store.
The altercations don't always end so peacefully. Recently, Venkatraman said he was assaulted by a customer as she was leaving the store. She violently pushed him aside, he said, after he asked her for a receipt. The police were then called in to control the woman. In fact, he added, it's not uncommon for the police to be called in to break up fights between customers, among other problems. Indeed, about eight months ago Walmart management asked its greeters to no longer walk through the store during their workday and focus on the entrance and exit so they could watch over "company assets," he said.
When problems escalate, "Walmart provides full support," he said. But when he's had to give statements to the police, like the receipt-woman altercation, it's really no problem, he said. After he spoke to the police, he didn't have to deal with it again. "The legal team at Walmart just took care of it," he said.
What's the best part of the job?
"The peer recognition." He was chosen as associate of the month at his Walmart in September.
The worst part?
"The job part of the job."
How much can you expect to be making one year in?
Around $9 an hour.
Five years in?
"It goes up. Eight years in, I am making $12.14 an hour."