They were there just after daybreak Monday, a line snaking down the sidewalk in Northeast Washington. And they kept coming, by the hundreds.
“Is this the line for Wal-Mart jobs?” asked Stephon Holly, 18, who arrived interview-ready. His wingtips were polished, his cardigan buttoned. He had a black portfolio packed with copies of his resume and talking points written on the legal pad to help him through a face-to-face.
But it never happened.
Wal-Mart reps were standing on the sidewalk, handing out fliers instructing the job seekers to apply online. They took names at the hiring centers they opened at 9 a.m. but offered nothing more.
Want to see the District’s economic problems laid bare? Spend a few minutes at one of two Wal-Mart hiring centers. A new surge of applicants arrived every 30 minutes.
“The D4 bus just stopped,” one of the folks there observed.
Sure enough, about a dozen hopefuls approached from that bus stop, headed to the future Wal-Mart store behind Union Station, shirts pressed, hair done, kids in strollers, thrilled by the prospect of a job.
Cars pulled up and three people climbed out to join the line. Many families came with two generations of applicants. All of them said they want to stay in the city of their birth. But few of them can afford it anymore.
By the end of the day, there were hundreds and maybe even a thousand applicants for about 350 low-wage jobs that the small-scale, 75,000-square-foot urban Wal-Mart will bring to Northeast. The same scene played out on Georgia Avenue NW, where another of the six Wal-Marts planned for the District is beginning to hire.
This is the point Wal-Mart was making, of course, when it threatened to pull out of the city this summer when the D.C. Council passed a living-wage bill. The legislation would have forced Wal-Mart and eventually other big-box stores to pay $12.50 an hour, higher than the District’s current minimum wage of $8.25. Mayor Vincent Gray, a Democrat, vetoed the bill, saying the jobs and economic development were too important to risk.
“If they pay $8.25, $8.75, whatever. A job is a job and I need a job,” said Ronald Knight, 52, who has been unemployed since he left a job at a grocery deli counter to take care of his dying mother. “All I want is to work, and I’ll take anything.”
Debbie Thomas, 57, was more conflicted about the legislation. “It really was a tough one,” she said. “It’s hard to live in this city on $7.45 or $8.25 an hour. I’ve lived here all my life, and I want to stay here. In the end, I’m just glad Wal-Mart’s here. I might get a job.”
She came to the hiring center with a folder full of her resumes, recommendation letters, work history. She worked in home health care for two decades until the group home she helped run lost its grant funding. That was two years ago. Two years of interviews, applications and resumes. Her unemployment checks would be almost identical to the current salary that Wal-Mart is offering.
“But you know, I don’t care. I would much rather work. Earn that money,” she said.
Next in line was Tracy Williams. She ran a kitchen in D.C. that made and shipped nearly 1,000 meals to halfway houses and elderly folks every day. She worked her way up from cook to manager. But Nutrition Inc. shut down two years ago, and all the resumes, interviews and phone calls have left Williams, 47, with zilch.
“I know I can work my way up again; I have no problem starting at the bottom here,” said Williams, who planned to apply online, in person, and then she’s going to call, call, call. “There are no jobs out there. Nothing. I’ve been babysitting,” she said. “This is the first time it really feels like people are going to get work.”
She was the third woman I talked to Monday morning who had been laid off from a job she’d held for about two decades.
Wal-Mart is far from a perfect employer. The corporation was ridiculously stubborn in the fight over pay, and I hope the city’s wage debate shames managers into paying more than the minimum wage once the stores open.
But Wal-Mart also pledged to go into severely underserved parts of the District that have not benefited from the financial boom that has created condos with dog grooming salons on the roof and stores peddling $30 boxes of gourmet doughnuts.
In the District, Wal-Mart isn’t killing off mom-and-pop stores and sweet little groceries. It is going into places that have nothing and have had nothing for decades. And it is providing an anchor for other redevelopment to follow.
I wish all the folks who bashed Wal-Mart this summer had spent the day talking to the city’s forgotten, struggling, unemployed residents. They came looking for work, with resumes in hand and hope on their faces.
Petula Dvorak is a columnist for The Washington Post.