This month, workers who have been with Walmart for at least five years received a one-time bump in their paychecks. A couple hundred extra dollars is usually welcome, but this time, it actually symbolizes a loss: No longer will those workers receive premium pay for their Sunday shifts, as the idea of compensating people for toiling on what some consider a day of rest fades from American business.
Walmart discontinued Sunday premium pay, which had been $1 extra per hour, for new hires back in 2011. Those who had continued to receive it will receive a lump sum equal to half the amount of Sunday pay they received last year, according to a company release in January outlining a handful of adjustments that Walmart explained were a way of "simplifying its pay structure" — and reducing the overall cost of increasing base wages to $10 an hour across the board.
That hasn't worked out so well for more experienced employees like eight-year Walmart veteran Nancy Reynolds, a 69-year-old cashier in Merritt Island, Fla., who works Thursday through Monday. Her base pay was already slightly above $10 an hour, so she didn't get much of a raise, and the loss of a few extra Sunday dollars a week will hurt. "The younger people, the ones who haven’t been there that long, they got it, and I'm glad for them," Reynolds says. "But they did it at the expense of me and everybody who’s been there a long time."
In cutting Sunday pay, Walmart is actually behind most of the retail industry, which made that change as legal requirements to pay more on Sundays were stricken from state laws across the country. So-called "blue laws" once prohibited Sunday commerce altogether in 34 states in the 1960s. They were often weakened through compromise, with higher pay mandated in exchange for shopping being legalized. Even with no mandate, premium pay was often what the labor market demanded.
"To get people to work, when they’d never worked before, they started to pay Sunday pay," says Craig Rowley, a retail compensation consultant with Korn Ferry, who has done work for Walmart.
That changed over time as women entered the workforce, pushing more shopping from weekdays to the weekend. The labor market also loosened up, meaning workers couldn't pick and choose which days they wanted to work; Sunday shifts are now expected rather than optional. And meanwhile, the importance of Sunday as a universal day of rest started to recede from the American psyche.
"When I was growing up, Sundays were kind of family day, church day," Rowley says. "As we’ve gotten to be a more secular society, staying at home on Sunday is not necessarily expected. 'We’re all going to be here all day Sunday' is not as strong a cultural norm."
Rhode Island and Massachusetts are now two of the last states to require retailers to pay time and a half on Sundays, and the retail industry is pushing hard to get the requirement rolled back in Massachusetts. "Sundays in retail have become unaffordable in our state," wrote William Rennie, vice president of the Retailers Association of Massachusetts, in a Boston Globe op-ed.
Sunday premium pay hasn't disappeared as quickly from other sectors, such as manufacturing and transportation, which have held on to a more traditional five or six-day work schedule. Most federal employees are still entitled to time and a half on Sundays. But more and more of their neighbors in the private sector won't be so lucky.