As Mother’s Day approached, Charlene Fletcher, mother of two, found herself occupied with the needs of other families, attending to the crush of shoppers last week at the Walmart in Duarte, Calif., where she works.
On Mother’s Day itself, she would be in the store, making sure shoppers had one last chance to pick up a heart pendant or a personalized mug for mom. For the past four years, Fletcher has had to work every Mother's Day, along with every New Year's Eve, and nearly every weekend.
Like many employees at Walmart, the largest private employer in the United States, Fletcher is required to work whenever the company needs her, which almost always means spending weekends and holidays at the store.
Yet even as she makes available most of her working hours, she earns so little that she has to rely on government assistance to feed her kids. For Fletcher, 32, motherhood is not merely something to celebrate one day a year: it's the status that qualifies her for the federal Women, Infants and Children program, which provides mothers with vouchers that they can exchange for milk and fresh produce.
Relying on help from the government is "embarrassing," she said. "Nobody should have to do that, especially with what Walmart makes."
Fletcher earns $9.40 an hour, placing her among the growing ranks of workers around the country who are officially poor. Since the official end of the Great Recession, low-wage jobs have grown nearly three times as fast as better paying jobs, according to the National Employment Law Project.
Many of these workers are mothers and fathers. According to a recent report by the Working Poor Families Project, nearly one-third of all working families in the United States earn what the report defines as a low income, up from 28 percent in 2007, the first year of the recession.
Brandon Roberts, manager of the Working Poor Families Project, said that the data undermines notions that poverty is the result of laziness or irresponsibility while debunking the idea that the typical low-wage worker is a teenager making an extra buck after school.
"We know that these are people who are serious about work," he said. "They bring all the significant cultural habits and norms that we care about, and despite that, are still earning so little that they qualify as poor."
For Fletcher, being poor means living in a one-bedroom apartment with her husband, their 7-year-old and a baby.
"We all stay in one bedroom," she said. "We managed to get all three beds in here -- the crib, the twin and my grandmother's old-fashioned bed frame."
Although Fletcher's husband works full-time, the couple also qualifies for California's medical welfare program, which pays for Fletcher's asthma medicine and the children's shots and check-ups. Fletcher and her husband applied for the benefits shortly after she started working at Walmart, and Fletcher still gets heated when she thinks about her first meeting with the caseworker.
"All she could say was, 'Just be glad you even have a job,'" Fletcher recalled. "We all appreciate our jobs, but I kind of resent that remark. The problem is that this company is getting rich off the consumers and off what we do for them, and yet they don't give back."
A spokesman for Walmart said that the company promotes hundreds of people every day, including Mother's Day.
"We are proud of the thousands and thousands of moms who choose to work at Walmart, because they understand the opportunities they have to build a career and a better life for their families," said Kory Lundberg. "In fact, in many of our stores we see mothers working side by side their daughters and sons."
According to Fortune's recent ranking of America's 500 biggest companies, Walmart replaced ExxonMobile at the top of the list in 2012, posting revenues of $469.2 billion. In the days leading up to Mother's Day, the company was getting ready to bolster those earnings by taking advantage of the anticipated rush on gift baskets, cookie tins and crockery. A section of the retailer's website listed 191 possible gifts for mom, ranging from a customized "Hugs and Kisses" picture frame ($19.95) to a Ninja 3-in-1 Cooking System ($149.00).
Fletcher said she expected Mother's Day at the store to be stressful. Since she joined Walmart, she said, the store has cut staff and leaned on the remaining employees to fill in the gaps. Fletcher operates the phones, relaying calls between customers, managers, and workers, and said she often has trouble getting employees on the line. "They can barely maintain their departments, let alone answer a phone call," she said.
Retail isn't the only industry that pays low wages. Other major employers of low-wage workers include the government, hospitals and fast-food restaurants.
Ashley Sanders, who earns $7.35 an hour at a Hardee's restaurant in St. Louis, said she can barely afford to keep her 6-month-old baby fed, despite receiving help from WIC and food stamps.
"Formula only lasts him a good three or four days," she said. "Every three days I'm having to buy more formula."
WIC covers about eight cans a month, she said, leaving her to pay for the remaining $30 worth of formula herself. "It's difficult, and I wish that the corporation would understand that," she said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated the location of the Walmart store where Charlene Fletcher works. It is in Duarte, Calif., not Pasadena.