Photo: Vanesa Brashier
Employees at the New Caney Sam’s Club, located at 22296 Market Place in the Valley Ranch Town Center, say they were shocked Thursday morning to learn the store was closing and they were being laid off.
Maintenance worker Miguel Betancourt, 19, says he was hired a little more than a week ago and claims managers were interviewing new hires as late as Wednesday.
“I am not blaming the store management. I know things are being done through corporate. They could have given us a warning though. They just let us show up for work to be told, ‘You’re done,'” Betancourt said.
Betancourt questions why Walmart, the parent company of Sam’s Club, announced employee pay raises and bonuses on Thursday and then closed 63 stores, cutting the jobs of 9,000 people in the U.S. and 450 in the Houston area. The two other Houston-area Clubs closing are located at 1615 South Loop East and 13331 Westheimer in the Eldridge Parking shopping center.
“During orientation, they preach about integrity and not being a no-show on the job. I think it’s messed it. It just shows that as a company they don’t have any integrity,” he said.
A marketing student at Lone Star College in Kingwood, Betancourt still lives with his parents and is more upset about his coworkers’ losses than his own.
“There were a lot of people working hard there to provide food for their families. I am concerned about them. They devoted a lot of time to the company to end up in this sad situation,” he said.
Betancourt and other employees at the New Caney store who were willing to discuss the layoffs with the Observer say they were shocked the store was being closed. Some learned they were laid off when they showed up for work. Others received a FedEx letter that contained information about the store closure.
“We are going to be paid through March 16, which is good, but it is going to create a real hardship on me if I don’t find another job right away,” said Hastin Jamison, 19, of New Caney.
Working part-time in maintenance, Jamison earned about $530 every two weeks, which he says barely covered his car payment and share of apartment rent.
“I liked my job but I think I am going to look for something else now. I am interested in working for a bank and focusing on going to college full-time, and I want to be able to afford a college education,” he said.
As the sole provider in her home, Wendy Phelps, 44, is hoping she can land a new position at the new Walmart in New Caney or the one in Porter.
“My husband can’t work right now because he was in a car accident. He’s out for the next eight weeks at least,” she said. “There is really nothing available to help us since we didn’t have personal injury protection in our insurance policy, but we are determined to make it work.”
Even before the layoff, money was tight for the Phelps family.
“Since my husband hasn’t been able to work, I’ve been paying half of the bills in one check and then the other half with the next check,” she said. “I just think it’s strange because they just built that store and are now closing it.”
Walmart shifts focus to online
The store closings, says Walmart spokesperson Anne Hatfield, are part of the company’s new strategy to focus on online sales.
“This is all about positioning the company for growth in the future. Online sales are growing. In the first half of fiscal year 2018, online sales were up 27 percent. That shows you where our members are shopping,” Hatfield said. “But this isn’t about Clubs versus online sales. It’s about striking the right balance. We need to put our investment into supporting our online growth and closing these Clubs will allow us to do that.”
Walmart currently has two ECommerce hubs in the U.S. – in Fort Worth, Texas, and Swedesboro, N.J. – supporting all of its online sales, according to Hatfield.
Walmart’s corporate leaders have determined another 12 hubs are needed to keep up with the online sales demand.
“We are looking to convert up to 12 of our Clubs into fulfillment centers. We are in the process of identifying which of these locations will be best. We have figured out one in Memphis, Tenn., but it’s too early to know about the others,” she said.
As for the manner in which employees were notified about the layoffs, Hatfield defended the corporation, saying there is never a good time to deliver bad news.
“We asked associates to come to the store Thursday morning so we could have a conversation in person with them and answer any questions they had. There is no easy way to lay people off,” she said.
Though many of the employees at the New Caney location were fairly new as the store opened just a year ago, Hatfield said some employees may still qualify for Walmart’s new bonus system, which is based on length of service.
Full-time and part-time employees who have been with Walmart for 20-plus years qualify for a one-time bonus of $1,000.
Walmart also announced this week it was raising its starting hourly wage to $11, effective in the Feb. 17 pay cycle. The company also expanded its parental and maternity leave policy, providing full-time hourly employees with 10 weeks of paid maternity leave and six weeks of paid parental leave, and added financial assistance of up to $5,000 per child for any employee adopting a child. The money is applied to adoption agency fees, translation fees and legal expenses.