Walmart has said that from 2014 it will offer same-sex partner benefits, but critics say this does nothing to change the fact that Walmart’s fight against a living wage is keeping people poor.
Announced this week, the decision means Walmart will soon offer a full range of benefits to employees with domestic partners — opposite or same sex and regardless of whether state law currently recognizes same-sex partners.
In a leaked internal memo obtained by gay interest blog Towleroad, vice president of benefits Sally Welborn told the retailer’s management division that this is a “business decision” as opposed to a political statement, with the letter reading in part:
It’s a business decision, not a moral or political decision. We operate in 50 states, hundreds of municipalities and Puerto Rico, and as clarified under the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), each of these states are developing different definitions of marriage, domestic partner, civil union, etc. By developing a single definition for all Walmart associates in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, we are able to ensure consistency for associates across our markets.
The Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as “ObamaCare”) inextricably linked health insurance with employment. As such, for our associates for whom we offer health insurance, we want to be sure we are providing access to as many individuals and their families as possible.
The change will take effect across all 50 states in which Walmart has a hold, and has been described as “historic” for its wider significance.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, has hailed Walmart’s decision, saying in an email statement that as a former employee he is “moved by my former employer’s historic action that further proves equality is good business.” He added that Walmart “has sent a cultural signal that equality for LGBT people is the simplest of mainstream values.”
Indeed, while Walmart is by no means the first employer to to do this — it is in fact late to the game with many Fortune 500 companies having already created inclusive benefits packages such as Starbucks, it is the nation’s largest private employer and as such this decision puts pressure on other companies who are yet to offer such benefits to follow suit and cater for same-sex couples.
Further added to that pressure will be the heightened attention brought by the Supreme Court of the United States’ July decision in Windsor v United States that struck down as unconstitutional DOMA Section 3. DOMA banned the government from recognizing same-sex marriages and was a key go-to for businesses that wanted to save money and so deprive their LGB workers of partner benefits.
With that pillar of discrimination gone, businesses have seen the legal basis for their own discriminatory policies severely hit and many have since announced that they are redrawing their benefits packages.
However, not everyone has greeted Walmart’s news so warmly.
While accepting this is a significant move in terms of broader equal access to benefits for same-sex couples, employees and workers rights groups have pointed out that because of Walmart’s notoriously low wages many, whether gay or straight, will struggle to work enough hours to even qualify for these health benefits.
In fact, in its coverage of this issue, USA Today has a comment from Lucas Handy, an openly gay former Walmart associate from Fort Dodge, who says he is pleasantly “shocked” by the change but reminds that “The real issue with Walmart’s health care is that most of us are unable to afford the coverage.” Handy says his access to Walmart’s health care package was cut off when he was moved from a full-time position to part-time, but that because he made only $8.95 an hour anyway he would have had a hard time affording the coverage.
Hardy says he was fired for speaking out about Walmart’s labor policies and is now part of a union group attempting to force Walmart to change. Walmart maintains Handy was fired for a series of policy violations. Regardless, Handy’s story is certainly not unique and Walmart’s aggressively low wages and attempts to fight living wage legislation, including threatening to pull out of states where a minimum wage could be introduced, is well documented.
As such, just as Walmart’s trumpeting of its environmental practices were seen to be little more than greenwashing over sustainability and larger environmental concerns, Walmart’s new inclusive health care package appears to have done nothing to to divert attention from Walmart’s wider hostile workplace practices and its alleged abuses such as using child labor abroad.
In short, it appears Walmart will have to do better for all its employees before it can expect praise over matters like this.