Wal-Mart Is At It Again

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Wal-Mart Is At It Again

The negative publicity that Wal-Mart has received for its shoddy business practices has led the huge discount retailer to expand its already mammoth advertising budget. Who would have thought Wal-Mart would contribute financially to NPR in order to air sponsorship teasers that tout the company's "diverse workforce" -- i.e., their wages are so low that many of their workers are recent immigrants who are living hand to mouth.

But the feel-good ads will not allow Wal-Mart to escape responsibility for its behavior. From today's New York Times:
An internal memo sent to Wal-Mart's board of directors proposes numerous ways to hold down spending on health care and other benefits while seeking to minimize damage to the retailer's reputation. Among the recommendations are hiring more part-time workers and discouraging unhealthy people from working at Wal-Mart.

In the memorandum, M. Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for benefits, also recommends reducing 401(k) contributions and wooing younger, and presumably healthier, workers by offering education benefits. The memo voices concern that workers with seven years' seniority earn more than workers with one year's seniority, but are no more productive.

...Ms. Chambers acknowledged that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart's 1.33 million United States employees were uninsured or on Medicaid.

Wal-Mart executives said the memo was part of an effort to rein in benefit costs, which to Wall Street's dismay have soared by 15 percent a year on average since 2002. Like much of corporate America, Wal-Mart has been squeezed by soaring health costs. The proposed plan, if approved, would save the company more than $1 billion a year by 2011.
Sounds like cost-cutting, right? Not according to Wal-Mart:
In an interview, Ms. Chambers said she was focusing not on cutting costs, but on serving employees better by giving them more choices on their benefits.

"We are investing in our benefits that will take even better care of our associates," she said. "Our benefit plan is known today as being generous."
But this was my favorite part:
To discourage unhealthy job applicants, Ms. Chambers suggests that Wal-Mart arrange for "all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering)."

... Ms. Chambers also said that she made her recommendations after surveying employees about how they felt about the benefits plan.
Does she expect us to believe that all of these recommendations flowed from the employee survey? Including the recommendation about creating different types of "physical activity" for the purpose of exposing which employees are less healthy than others?

Hell, maybe Wal-Mart will try next to collect DNA samples from every employee and run them through a lab. Armed with the lab results, Wal-Mart can then lay off employees who have a genetic marker for any costly disease.

That may sound heartless, but, when a company's raison d'etre is to give the public "low, low prices" it is tempting to take outrageous steps to maintain "low, low benefit costs" -- and one example is conspiring to show "unhealthy" workers the door.

Some employers have health-and-wellness programs, but to the Wal-Marts of this world, such an approach must seem downright exotic, perhaps even silly.

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