Bentonville AR Dec 12 2016
Labor activists who pushed Walmart Stores Inc. to raise its minimum wage have a new target in their sights. They’re now pressuring the mega-retailer to improve security at its stores and parking lots around the country.
Making Change at Walmart, a labor group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, will be running television ads in four media markets and has been handing out fliers to customers in 20 cities. The demands follow an investigation by Bloomberg Businessweek that found widespread crime at the stores of the retail giant, which is based in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The union’s organizers also have met with city and local officials in Dallas; Tampa, Florida; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and the Minneapolis area, encouraging them to declare Walmart a public nuisance in hopes of pressuring the company to improve security.
The push comes after a Bloomberg analysis of police reports from dozens of stores found the number of petty crimes committed on Walmart properties this year was probably in the hundreds of thousands and that a violent crime occurs at one of its stores, on average, at least once a day. There were significantly more incidents at Walmart than at rival Target Corp. in the cities where Bloomberg obtained data.
That has put a strain on police departments in cities large and small. While Walmart says it is working to address the problem, the labor group argues that the company should be doing more. It’s demanding that the retailer hire additional off-duty police officers and private security guards. And the union wants stores to make employees more visible in the shopping aisles to deter theft.
“They haven’t been investing in the proper security,” said Randy Parraz, a national campaign director for Making Change at Walmart. “They are pinching and squeezing the taxpayers for something the company should be paying for. It isn’t like this is a company operating in the red.”
Walmart says it takes the issue seriously and is working to fix it. To try to deter shoplifters, the company has been moving more employees to the sales floor and store exits, where some of them spot-check receipts. It’s also stationing employees at self-checkout areas, installing eye-level security monitors in high-theft areas and using data analytics to detect fraudulent returns.
To cut down on calls to police, Walmart has been rolling out a program that allows first-time offenders caught stealing merchandise below a certain value to avoid arrest if they agree to go through a theft-prevention program. At some higher-crime stores, the company is also hiring off-duty police and private security officers.
Since making these changes this year, Walmart calls to police have dropped an average of 35 percent nationwide, the company said.
“We are continuing our increased outreach to law enforcement across the country as part of our ongoing commitment to meet our customers’ and associates’ expectations for a safe shopping experience,” company spokesman Blake Jackson said. “The importance of this issue is recognized at the highest levels of the company, and we are investing in people and technology.”
Police say the retailer isn’t going far enough in the face of continuing violent crimes.
In recent months, an autistic boy was abducted from a Walmart in upstate New York, a man was beaten with his own walker at a store in Florida and a woman was stabbed to death by her daughter in a Walmart parking lot in Alabama.
Last month, a good Samaritan was shot and killed while trying to stop a woman from being beaten in a Walmart parking lot in San Antonio. This was eerily similar to an incident less than two months earlier in Shawnee, Kansas: Two suspected carjackers were beating a woman, with a baby, in broad daylight. They then shot and severely injured a man who came to the woman’s aid.
As America’s largest private employer, Walmart has a responsibility to its 1 million-plus workers to provide them a safe working environment, Parraz said. Often, they are on the front lines of securing the store and have been shot, stabbed and punched while trying to stop shoplifters during the past year.
Last week, a man allegedly stealing a television used a stun gun on an employee who asked to see his receipt as he exited the store. Other workers have said they worry about their safety in the parking lots while rounding up shopping carts or walking to or from their cars.
Parraz questioned the recent Walmart push to put more employees at exits to check receipts. The reassignments, intended to deter theft, have some employees worried that they’ll find themselves in confrontations with shoplifters that could turn violent. Those employees are paid some of the lowest wages in the store. Instead, he says Walmart should hire trained security staff to handle that job.
Walmart’s crime problem also is spilling into its efforts to open new stores. In Mission City, Kansas, one resident after another cited statistics in the Bloomberg Businessweek article at a City Council meeting, in front of a Walmart representative.
“The Mission police will be subsidizing their security,” one man told the council members, holding a printout of the article.
“The police presence, who is paying for that?” a woman asked. “You’re robbing the schools. You’re robbing the streets.”
A few weeks later in Bossier City, Louisiana, residents voiced similar concerns at a City Council meeting. And in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, City Councilor Melissa Mazzeo said crime is one of the reasons she is fighting Walmart’s plan to open a new store.
“It is going to be happening in people’s backyards,” she said. “When you are dealing with a situation like this, which will have such a big impact, you have to think not just of the good things but some of the bad things and how you are going to tackle it.”