NEW YORK, March 23 ― Hundreds of workers at five US Walmart facilities that fulfil e-commerce orders are being asked to find jobs within 90 days at other company locations, a spokesperson confirmed to Reuters.

About 200 workers at Pedricktown, New Jersey, and hundreds of others at Fort Worth, Texas; Chino, California; Davenport, Florida; and Bethlehem, Pennsylvania were let go due to a reduction or elimination in evening and weekend shifts, the spokesperson said.

The layoffs at Walmart, a retail bellwether because of its size, could be a harbinger of further turmoil in the US economy, which many economists predict could enter recession this year.

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“We recently adjusted staffing levels to better prepare for the future needs of customers,” Walmart said in a statement, adding that it would work closely with affected associates to find jobs at other locations.

The spokesperson said impacted workers would be paid for 90 days to find jobs at other facilities, including those in Joliet, Illinois, and Lancaster, Texas, where the company has opened up new high-tech e-commerce distribution centres.

Walmart has been investing heavily in automation over the past few years, partnering with automation companies such as Knapp to help it cut down the number of steps it takes employees to process e-commerce orders to five from 12, which has been implemented at its Pedricktown, New Jersey location, for instance.

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On a post-earnings call in February, Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said he was “most excited about the automation opportunity we have” with plans to increase investments in automation technology as part of its more than US$15-billion (RM66 billion) capital expenditure budget this year.

Workers being laid off at the five fulfilment centres will be eligible for roles at Walmart's 5,000 US stores, which the company has increasingly been using as a platform to ship orders to customers' doorsteps, the spokesperson said. Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States with about 1.7 million US workers.

Apart from Pedricktown, New Jersey, Walmart did not post a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) notice for the layoffs, according to a Reuters review of labour government data. A WARN notice is mandated by US labour law and requires companies with 100 or more employees to provide 60 days' advance notification of plant closings and mass layoffs.

The spokesperson declined to call them mass layoffs and said that the warehouses continued to operate normally. The company did not issue a WARN notification for the other locations as it is unsure about the total number of employees that will be eventually laid off and re-hired, the spokesperson added.

The news comes months after the company let go off nearly 1,500 workers at an Atlanta, Georgia, online order fulfilment centre, as part of a modernisation plan to build warehouses with a more high-tech spin. The spokesperson said the new round of layoffs was unrelated to its modernisation plans.

In January, the company bumped up the minimum wage by US$2 to US$14 per hour. This, however, still lagged Target and Amazon, which pay workers a starting wage of at least US$15 per hour. ― Reuters