Will the gift of a job lead to self-sufficiency for a formerly homeless Wal-Mart cashier?


Christina Ford stands by to help customers at the self-checkout registers at a new Wal-Mart in Washington on Dec. 21. (Dayna Smith/For The Washington Post)
December 24, 2013

Christina Ford’s best Christmas gift arrived early this year: a job.

Three months ago, Ford, a former group home worker who had been out of work for a year and a half, landed a position as a cashier at the new Wal-Mart on H Street NW. This was no small thing for Ford, 24, given what Christmas was like for her last year. A pregnant Ford and her two preschool-aged sons spent the holidays in a New York Avenue hotel because there was no space at the city’s family shelter. The only gifts she could offer were donations from Toys for Tots.

This year, she will spend Christmas in her own apartment and had plenty of gifts to wrap. Since Wal-Mart opened for business Dec. 4, she has yet to go home without a bag filled with socks, shirts and other things she bought for her boys and 11-month-old daughter during her lunch break.

“I like buying my kids things they never had before,” she said. “I like that I don’t have to ask people for anything.”

Ford is one of more than 600 people hired by Wal-Mart for its first two D.C. stores after a bruising political battle over the wages it pays its workers. Her situation illustrates the opportunities — and potential pitfalls — that the giant retailer has brought to the District. In an increasingly costly city filled with unskilled people desperate for work, Wal-Mart offers the possibility of a regular paycheck. But it’s not necessarily one large enough to ensure self-sufficiency.

Ford knows that all too well. At the moment, she is getting help from a rapid rehousing program that enabled her to rent an apartment in Anacostia. Will her Wal-Mart wages be enough to allow her to support her family when that housing subsidy ends sometime in the next year?

Ford wouldn’t say how much she is making, but Wal-Mart previously said it expected to pay its D.C. workers the same amount it pays its suburban Virginia employees: an average of $12.39 an hour.

On a recent Thursday afternoon, it was hard to go more than a few feet without running into a member of the store’s blue-and-khaki-clad army of employees directing traffic in the garage, stocking shelves or folding clothes.

Assigned to monitor a self-checkout aisle, Ford was a low-key but insistent presence.

“Hi, how you doing? You can step over here,” she said, motioning a customer to an open machine.

Without turning around, she sensed that a man behind her with a case of beer was having trouble entering his driver’s license identification number. Ford swooped in to do it for him. Across the aisle, a woman was staring down the neck of a shirt as if it was a black hole, unable to find the tag. Ford stepped up behind her and fished it out.

Being unemployed was jarring for Ford, who worked full-time in a group home for the elderly after graduating from Booker T. Washington Public Charter School for Technical Arts in 2008. Ford took her clients to the store. She cooked them meals. She cleaned. She often worked overnight.

Then she was laid off. She started collecting unemployment and applying for countless jobs, including at Safeway and Giant. She never heard back.

Without a paycheck, she said she was forced to give up her apartment and move into her mother’s three-bedroom flat in Southeast D.C. But that lasted only a few months because her siblings also needed a place to live. Ford and her two sons ended up at a Days Inn when the city’s family shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital didn’t have space for them.

Ford, her boys and, later, her infant daughter, shared a room with two double beds, a pullout couch and a small refrigerator. There wasn’t much to do nearby, Ford said of the freeway-like stretch of New York Avenue, dominated by gas stations, motels and fast food spots. The hotel had a pool, but it was always closed. In the spring, a spot opened up at D.C. General — a room that turned out to have bedbugs.

“It was a rough place. My son got bit up, and they didn’t do anything,”said Ford, who finally moved back in with her mother.

Ford said she had been following news of Wal-Mart’s impending debut in Washington because she wanted to work at one of the retailer’s first stores. The giant retailer’s arrival triggered a bitter political fight over a living wage bill that would have required Wal-Mart to pay its employees a minimum of $12.50 an hour in wages and benefits. Amid threats by Wal-Mart to abandon plans for more stores in D.C., Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) vetoed the legislation in September, calling the bill a “job killer.” Earlier this month, the D.C. Council backed an increase in the city's hourly minimum wage from $8.25 to $11.50 that would apply to all workers, not just those at large retailers. Gray has said he supports a more modest increase, but is not expected to veto the measure given the council’s unanimous support.

In late September, Ford was one of 23,000 applicants for more than 600 associate jobs. About 68 percent of those hired were District residents, and some had been out of work for months.

On the day Wal-Mart opened its doors earlier this month, Ford clocked in by 5:40 a.m., eager to get started. Ford said she appreciates being able to choose her hours. She works in the morning, when her mother and her children’s father are available to get the boys to school and watch the baby.

The only time she sits down while she’s at work is during her 15-minute breaks. During her lunch hour, she said, she shops.

In January, her employee discount of 10 percent will kick in, but she couldn’t wait for it. A few days before the store opened, she moved into a two-bedroom apartment off Good Hope Road SE, which she secured through a city program designed to help get the homeless into permanent housing. For now, she pays a third of her income for rent.

Her first purchase at Wal-Mart: a $39 microwave, along with pots, pans, plates and utensils. Most recently, she bought her sons matching T-shirts at $1.50 each and a $10 pack of Buzz Lightyear boys underpants, and an $8 pair of Dora the Explorer sippy cups for her daughter.

She said another associate teased her once, “If you don’t go home, you will keep buying stuff.”

At $12.39 an hour, a full-time employee at Wal-Mart would earn around $22,500 a year. In the District, an income of $23,000 putsa family of four below the poverty line. Wal-Mart employees get access to health care starting at $18 each two-week pay period, dental and vision care, and can contribute to a 401(k) with an employer match of 6 percent, Wal-Mart spokesperson Amanda Henneberg said.

Critics of Wal-Mart have long argued that it needs to pay its workers more and that many live on the edge of poverty. A store in Canton, Ohio, made headlines last month over a Thanksgiving food drive for needy Wal-Mart employees.

Wal-Mart officials said the retailer offers wages and benefits comparable to or better than those of its competitors and offers people with little or no work experience the chance to get a foothold in the workforce.

“They have an opportunity to make a career and move up,” said Henneberg, who added that the company has promoted 20 associates in the District to supervisor positions, and that it promotes about 160,000 employees a year nationwide to jobs with higher pay.

Ford is certain she will be one of them.“I already know I am moving up,” she declared. In her mind, the only question is when.

Under the rules of the city’s rapid rehousing program, she may have to pay the full rent on her two-bedroom unit within the next year. Similar apartments in her neighborhood rent for $900 or more. “I don’t know how high it will go up,” she said.

For now, she is grateful to bring home a paycheck and small surprises. She recently sent her kids to her mother’s house to help decorate her mother’s Christmas tree. While they were out, she picked up her own tree and had it decked out by the time they walked in the door.

She is looking forward to watching them open their presents. “They get to open one gift on Christmas Eve,” she said, “and the rest Christmas morning.”

Annys Shin has been a staff writer at the Washington Post since 2004.
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