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Working for Wal-Mart
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So I had lunch with Jill today, and we got to talking about Ralph Nader, then corporations, then Wal-Mart. She said she'd seen a special on PBS about how evil and horrible they are.

So I thought I'd do a little poking around. Here's the website for the PBS special Store Wars. And here's what they have to say about wages and business practices at Wal-Mart:

Forbes magazine, polling business executives (not employees) has ranked Wal-Mart among the best 100 corporations to work for. Yet the employees on average take home pay of under $250 a week. The salary for full-time employees (called "associates") is $6 to $7.50 an hour for 28-40 hours a week, which is typical in the discount retail industry. (emphasis mine)

Oh my god! Wal-Mart is evil. They're paying wages that are typical for their industry. And they call their employees "associates". That is so 1984. (By the way, my company calls its employees "Employee Partners".)

This pay scale places employees with families below the poverty line, with the majority of employees' children qualifying for free lunch at school. When closely examined, this amounts to a form of corporate welfare, as the taxpayer subsidizes the low salaries. One-third are part-time employees - limited to less than 28 hours of work per week - and are not eligible for benefits.

Which means that two-thirds of Wal-Mart employees are full-time, and are eligible for benefits. I'm sorry, but on the face of it, Wal-Mart doesn't sound incredibly horrible. They're anti-union. Tell me a company that encourages unionization. They don't pay below average for retail workers...they pay the average rate (if you've got a problem with that, write your Congressperson to raise the minimum wage, don't bitch at Wal-Mart). So their benefits aren't very good...guess what? Neither are mine. Benefits packages have gotten worse in the past five years. Yes, corporations want to maximize the bottom line, but health care costs are rising, and it does cost them more to give better health benefits. Does this make Wal-Mart evil?

And Jill said that she'd seen a story about Wal-Mart employees being trained on how to receive welfare. I found several stories like this one (none from mainstream news outlets...they're all controlled by corporate interests, don't you know), from Common Dreams:

Wal-Mart provides its workers with access to a Web-based service that allows a county social services worker to immediately verify income and employment. Such access can help to qualify workers quickly for Medi-Cal benefits, food stamps and other taxpayer-funded aid.

While the use of this fast-tracked system may help deliver government services to those who qualify for them; it can also raises a number of concerns: In an environment of low wages and meager benefits, it can be seen as encouraging big business to make taxpayer-funded services a part of their business plan.

So Wal-Mart provides information about government assistance to its employees. Those sons-a-bitches!

Here's an editorial from a Kansas newspaper that breaks down the financials for a cashier working at Wal-Mart:

According to the personnel manager at Salina's Supercenter, a cashier earns a starting hourly wage of $6.25. After Social Security and Medicare taxes, the paychecks for a month would total $1,016 for a full-time 176 hours.


Here in America, the government implicitly recognizes the insufficiency of Wal-Mart wages. Our cashier's family would be eligible for an Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) of $4,140 in 2002. That would close the gap between the cashier's wage and bare survival, and provide enough additional income to lift the family just above the poverty line.

I'm sorry, but I don't see a massive scandal at work here. Wal-Mart pays the industry average, which the government recognizes as below a living wage and compensates accordingly.

So an unskilled worker can get a job that makes enough to barely get by. If you disagree with the level of wages that a cashier at Wal-Mart makes, then what do you think they should be getting? And what policies should be implemented to make that happen? If we raise the minimum wage, Wal-Mart is going to pass those costs along to the customer, so the cost of consumer goods is going to go up, making it even harder for that cashier to buy the things he needs to live. If we compensate with policies like the Earned Income Tax Credit, then taxpayers are paying to balance out equity in pay...but then we're encouraging companies to pay substandard wages and let the government pick up the slack.

So what's the right governmental policy?

And that's a separate issue from how Wal-Mart behaves. Asking a corporation to do the right thing is a bit silly. They're going to be primarily concerned with the bottom line. But guess what? As a consumer, you have a way of influencing their behavior...with your money.

You don't like their business practices, write a letter to Wal-Mart and don't shop at Wal-Mart or Sam's.

Nothing, after all, speaks louder than money.

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