​A slow fade-out for the Sunday pay premium

Walmart (WMT), the country's biggest private employer, has changed many aspects of how Americans work. But in one respect, it's now catching up to the rest of the country.

The giant retailer recently completed phasing out its long-standing Sunday pay policy, which provided an additional $1 an hour. The move is part of Walmart's wage overhaul that provided raises for more than 1 million workers.

The company described the change as a way of "simplifying its pay structure." It had stopped paying Sunday wages to new hires in 2011, so the latest adjustment means no workers will now get the Sunday premium.

Walmart's change is just one more sign of the erosion of Sunday pay, which was once commonplace in the retail sector. But as more Americans view the day as just another one to shop or work, that means companies aren't feeling the same pressures to pay extra wages to lure employees into work on Sundays.

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean Walmart's change hasn't caused some bad feelings, especially among some senior workers who had enjoyed the Sunday pay boost.

"In this situation, hundreds of employees are affected," said Lisa Sterling, chief people officer at Ceridian. "Since those who worked on Sunday had always expected a premium pay of an extra $1 per hour, the changing of this long-standing pay structure can result in a range of emotions that can affect the employee's productivity, commitment and morale."

One woman complained on Walmart's blog that the decision meant the company was taking away her extra Sunday pay "to give these people raises." Another worker complained to The Washington Post that the decision was made at the expense of senior workers.

"The younger people, the ones who haven't been there that long, they got it, and I'm glad for them," Nancy Reynolds, a Walmart cashier, told The Washington Post. "But they did it at the expense of me and everybody who's been there a long time."

With the elimination of laws regulating that employers pay more on Sundays, many retailers stopped offering the additional pay, Sterling noted.

"The retail sector, specifically, eased away from this not only due to the regulation change," she said, "but because given the generational differences in the workplace, Sunday is no longer considered a day of rest for American businesses."

In previous years, many stores found they needed to offer additional pay to convince people to work on Sunday, she noted. But that's no longer necessary. In addition to the common view that Sunday is just another day, it could also be due to financial pressures on U.S. workers resulting from years of stagnating pay.

The average entry-level cashier at Walmart earns $8.48 an hour, according to a 2014 paper published at the National Bureau of Economic Research. That equates to annual gross income of less than $18,000. Those workers might be happy to earn some extra pay on Sundays, regardless of whether they get that additional dollar or not.

Of course, in some industries Sunday pay is still the norm, including transportation, and two states still mandate extra pay on Sundays, Massachusetts and Rhode Island. How long those laws remain intact is in doubt. The retailing industry is pushing to do away with them, arguing that they lead to higher prices for consumers and lower margins for stores.

"Government should not pick winners and losers in the marketplace, particularly when the losers are the longtime employers in our communities," the Retailers Association of Massachusetts wrote earlier this month.

Whatever happens in those states, it's clear that Walmart's move to eliminate Sunday pay, however painful to workers, is a watershed. In today's retail reality, bricks-and-mortar stores need to compete with always-open rivals such as Amazon (AMZN).