The cars in the parking lot cluster near an automatic door that glides open when customers approach. Few do this time of day. It's not yet 6 on a winter morning. Workers retrieve merchandise from the stockroom at the back of the store to replenish shelves. Two clerks flick plastic shoes with Velcro straps, made-in-China sweat-pants and other items across bar-code scanners and into gray plastic bags. Employees, for a change, outnumber shoppers.
"We're short-handed," one says in a clipped tone. "It makes it harder when you've got your own job and four or five others to do at the same time." Her usual shift is early afternoon until 10, but some days her manager tells her to report at 5 the next morning. Her hours recently began fluctuating. Sometimes she gets as few as 31 a week, her take-home pay dipping well below $400. She's past 60, counting the days until retirement, and in the nearly 20 years she's done this, cynicism has crept into her voice.
"They're trying to get rid of us long-term associates," she says, describing what she sees as evidence--bad shifts, more work, shorter hours, intimidation. "If you want your job, you keep your mouth shut." Before Christmas, some restive counterparts staged walkouts. Not in North Carolina. "You can't say 'union.' That's a forbidden word. You can be terminated on the spot." An internal pay schedule reminds managers they oversee employment-at-will workplaces, meaning they can fire workers at a moment's notice, without cause.
West of Charlotte across the Catawba River, which once powered the textile mills that drove the region's economy, this is one of the places shaping it today. Bentonville, Ark.-based Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has 168 Walmart and Sam's Club stores in North Carolina, with 17 more planned or under construction. Like this one sprawling over nearly 4 acres, 131 are Walmart Supercenters. The world's largest retailer is also the state's largest private-sector employer, a position it has held since 2002 in BUSINESS NORTH CAROLINA'S annual ranking. Some 52,000--more people than live in Burlington are on its Tar Heel payroll.
Retailers hold four of the top 10 spots on the list, more than any other industry, reflecting a major shift in the way this state works. In 1977, the four largest employers were textile companies. When BNC published its first ranking in 1991, four of the top 10, including No. 1, were manufacturers. Only a handful are on it now. "North Carolina isn't unique," says Patrick O'Neill, executive vice president of the 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers International Union in Washington, D.C. "We're becoming a nation of consumers, not producers, and Wal-Mart's helping accelerate the downward spiral. It used to be Wal-Mart imported 72% of its goods. Now that's about 90%. It's a race to the bottom, and they're responsible for a lot of the off-shoring of jobs you see in North Carolina."
O'Neill, whose union hasn't been able to breach the chain, is no fan. But even critics concede that Wal-Mart sells goods at low prices and provides jobs for the elderly and those with few skills and little education. Wages for its full-time employees in North Carolina average $12.73 an hour, a spokesman says. (The estimated state average hourly wage was $19.83 in 2012, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.) The chain spent $6.7 billion last year with North Carolina suppliers and donated $33.2 million to charities. The fragmented schedules and sporadic hours that some dislike attract others, and its size gives it flexibility. In Cary, personnel coordinator Bessie Pickett, who has worked there 19 years, says, "My husband died of a massive heart attack, and they gave me a week off. They were really understanding. "Still, she adds, "it's changed a lot since I came here, and a lot are resistant to change."
"Individuals who go there to work have to realize what a Wal-Mart job is going to be," says Michael Walden, an economist at N.C. State University in Raleigh. "Many are students and part-timers with no intention of staying. Other stores are like that, too. There's a young man at the gym where I work out who's part-time at Target, while working on his degree. It fits him fine." Once, retailing was characterized by department stores such as Charlotte-based Belk Inc. that provided not just a job but, for many, a career. That's fading. Between 2010 and 2020, a state report forecasts, North Carolina will lose more than 5,700 department-store jobs, the most of any business segment listed. Adding nearly 24,000 jobs, superstores and warehouse clubs will be among the biggest gainers.
TOP PRIVATE-SECTOR EMPLOYERS Rank Company Headquarters North Ownership Carolina Employment 1 Wal-Mart Stores Bentonville, 52,070 Public Inc. Ark. 2 Duke Durham 46,075 Nonprofit University(1) 3 Delhaize Brussels 30,000 Foreign Group(2) 4 McDonald's Oakbrook, ill 27,500 Public Corp. 5 Wells Fargo & San Francisco 27,135 Public Co. 6 Lowe's Cos. Mooresville 22,000 Public 7 Novant Health Winston-Salem 21,295 Nonprofit Inc. 8 Bank of America Charlotte 18,000 Public Corp. 9 Harris Teeter Matthews 16,625 Public Supermarkets Inc. 10 Duke Energy Charlotte 13,420 Public Corp. 11 Wake Forest Winston-Salem 12,850 Nonprofit Baptist Health 12 BB&T Corp. Winston-Salem 12,335 Public 13 Vidant Health Greenville 11,760 Nonprofit Inc.(3) 14 United Parcel Atlanta 10,820 Public Service Inc. 15 Smithfield Foods Smithfield, Va. 10,200 Public Inc.(4) 16 IBM Corp. Armonk, N.Y. 10,000...