Wal-Mart, the nation’s largest employer, announced Monday that 35,000 part-time employees will soon be moved to full-time status, entitling them to the full healthcare benefits that were scheduled to be denied them as a result of Wal-Mart’s efforts to avoid the requirements of Obamacare.
While some analysts believe that the move comes as Wal-Mart is attempting to deal with the negative view many Americans have of its worker benefits program, a closer look reveals the real reason for the shift—
Wal-Mart’s business is going south due to the company’s penchant for putting politics and the squeeze on Wal-Mart employees ahead of the kind of customer satisfaction that produces prosperity over the long-term.
In fact, Wal-Mart’s unwillingness to pay most of their workers a livable wage, while avoiding enough full-time employees to properly run a retail outlet, has led to the company placing dead last among department and discount stores in the most recent American Customer Satisfaction Index—a position that should now be all to familiar to the nation’s largest retailer given that Wal-Mart has either held or shared the bottom spot on the index for six years running.
For anyone who has not been following the Wal-Mart saga, sales have been sinking dramatically at the retailer as the company has turned to hiring mostly temporary workers (those who must reapply for a job every 180 days) to staff their stores while cutting full-time employees’ hours down to part-time status in order to avoid providing workers with healthcare benefits.
Empty shelves, ridiculously long check-out lines, helpless customers wandering through the electronics section and general disorganization at Wal-Mart store locations.
This is hardly a recipe for success.
A recent description of a Wal-Mart store in Newark, New Jersey published by Bloomberg, says it all—
“Three days earlier, about 10 people waited in a customer service line at a Wal-Mart in Secaucus, New Jersey, across the Hudson River from New York, the nation’s largest city. Twelve of 30 registers were open and the lines were about five deep. There were empty spaces on shelves large enough for a grown man to lie down, and a woman wandered around vainly seeking a frying pan.”
The description pretty much sums up what you will find at the typical Wal-Mart store in the United States these days.
While the company’s trend toward temporary employees has allowed the retailer to avoid its responsibilities under the Affordable Care Act—a law that Wal-Mart publicly supported only to turn around after passage and work to avoid providing health care benefits to employees—they’ve managed to tank their store sales in the process.
Who would have guessed that a well-staffed store filled with competent and reasonably paid employees might actually have an impact on the success of a company?
Home Depot—that’s who.
According to Zeynep Ton, a retail researcher and associate professor of operations management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, in the early 2000s, Home Depot’s CEO, Robert Nardelli, moved to cut full-time staffing levels while increasing part-time employees in an effort to boost profits by trimming the expense that comes with employing full-time workers. It worked for a short while. However, as Ton notes, eventually customer service declined—and with it, customer satisfaction—leading to a severe decline of same-store sales.
Wal-Mart’s penny wise-pound foolish approach to its business was further well documented in the Bloomberg article referenced earlier where they told the story of Margaret Hancock, a retired accountant from Newark, Delaware, who has always viewed Wal-Mart as her “one stop shopping destination”.
While Ms. Hancock had, for years, been able to get everything she needed at her local Wal-Mart store, recent visits resulted in her failing to locate numerous items as the products were simply not out on the shelves and available for purchase.
As Hancock explained it, “If it’s not on the shelf, I can’t buy it. You hate to see a company self-destruct, but there are other places to go.”
And ‘go’ is exactly what Ms. Hancock did—no doubt to Wal-Mart’s competitor, Costco, a company that experienced a 19 percent increase in profits in Q2 2013 while paying its employees 40 percent more on average (the average Costco wage is $21.96 per hour) than what a Wal-Mart worker can earn. In that same quarter, Wal-Mart numbers revealed the company is going nowhere fast given its current state of operations.
So, where is all that product that once filled Wal-Mart shelves?
Oh, the goods are in the store—either in the back room or in the unopened boxes lining the aisles as they await the availability of a store clerk to get to the rather critical job of moving the merchandise from the box to the shelf where a customer can actually purchase it. But when there are insufficient numbers of store clerks available—due to Wal-Mart’s commitment to using temporary workers or busting its full-time employees down to part-time so as to avoid worker benefit—the products Wal-Mart sells stay off the shelves and unavailable for customers to purchase.
Of course, Wal-Mart’s efforts to keep its workers from earning a decent living while achieving health care benefits has created some full-time work for some.
The company now hires people to work with its employees to help them sign up for Medicaid, the government program that makes healthcare available to Americans who neither get coverage at work or are able to afford it without public assistance.
What that means is that you and I are subsidizing Wal-Mart’s poor treatment of its employees as we pay for their workers health care coverage with our tax dollars and all so Wal-Mart can feather and mask its sinking profits by allowing you and I to pay for their responsibilities, whether we shop at Wal-Mart or not.
The moral to the story?
Wal-Mart is finally learning what all American businesses who seek to avoid their health care responsibilities to employees will soon learn.
It may be a clever enough dodge to cut employees below the 30 hours per week in order to avoid the expectations of Obamacare, but the move comes at a substantial price to be paid in lost revenue and profits. Given that the entire point of business is to show a profit, it is only a matter of time before employers learn what Home Depot learned some years ago and what Wal-Mart is slowly beginning to figure out—you get what you pay for.
Cut back on employees and you will, eventually, cut back on your profits as the savings a business creates by cutting worker hours leads to greatly decreased sales as customer satisfaction disappears.
While there are no shortage of Americans who enjoy deriding the Affordable Care Act as a ‘job killer’, what will soon emerge—and sooner than you may think—is an understanding that the losses experienced by businesses that cut worker hours will far exceed whatever is gained by avoiding giving employees the healthcare benefits their families so badly require.
Don’t believe it?
Just ask Wal-Mart.
By: Rick Ungar, Op-Ed Contributor, Forbes, September 25, 2013
There’s a power struggle going on in Washington right now, not between Republicans and Democrats but between Wal-Mart—which is supposed to open six stores in the District—and the city council, which has a bill pending to require big-box retailers to pay a living wage. As you surely know, Wal-Mart was built on keeping costs as low as possible, particularly labor costs. The model Wal-Mart recruit is someone who has no other employment options and will take whatever they can get. The retail colossus isn’t going to let some uppity city council tell it how much it can pay its employees:
The world’s largest retailer delivered an ultimatum to District lawmakers Tuesday, telling them less than 24 hours before a decisive vote that at least three planned Wal-Marts will not open in the city if a super-minimum-wage proposal becomes law.
A team of Wal-Mart officials and lobbyists, including a high-level executive from the mega-retailer’s Arkansas headquarters, walked the halls of the John A. Wilson Building on Tuesday afternoon, delivering the news to D.C. Council members.
The company’s hardball tactics come out of a well-worn playbook that involves successfully using Wal-Mart’s leverage in the form of jobs and low-priced goods to fend off legislation and regulation that could cut into its profits and set precedent in other potential markets. In the Wilson Building, elected officials have found their reliable liberal, pro-union political sentiments in conflict with their desire to bring amenities to underserved neighborhoods.
For Wal-Mart, this isn’t just about these particular stores. They can make money even if they pay a higher wage at these stores, and with over 10,000 stores around the world, the D.C. locations are a drop in their enormous bucket anyway. It’s about their relationship both to the people they employ and to the communities they locate in. It’s about power, and as far as they’re concerned, power has to reside with Wal-Mart. Their employees do what they’re told and get paid what they’re told, and if they don’t like it they can go find another job. By the same token, the city council gives Wal-Mart what it wants, and if it doesn’t they can try to find somebody else to open a store there.
My guess is that in the end, either the city council will cave or Mayor Vincent Gray will veto the bill (he says he’s considering it). Why? Because Wal-Mart can walk away from the D.C. stores without a second thought, while the council desperately wants both the jobs the stores will bring and the ability for their constituents to have a convenient place to shop. One side has virtually nothing to lose, while the other side has a great deal to lose.
Would Wal-Mart make less money if they paid their employees a little more? Not necessarily. There are other models out there, most notably Costco and Trader Joe’s, which believe that by giving their employees higher wages and good benefits, they can reduce turnover and provide better service, which lowers costs and increases sales. And it works: they’ve achieved steady growth and excellent profits by making their employees happy.
But the idea that the way to deal with employees is to basically treat them like the enemy, which includes not just paying them as little as possible but also reacting to any hint of solidarity among the employees like an outbreak of the Ebola virus, is bred into Wal-Mart’s DNA. Think I exaggerate? Back in 2000, 11 meat-cutters at a Wal-Mart in Texas voted to join a union. The company responded by announcing that it was immediately eliminating the meat-cutting departments at 180 stores and switching to pre-packaged meat, and would eventually eliminate the meat-cutting departments at every store in the country. They don’t screw around, as the D.C. Council has just discovered.
By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, July 10, 2013
“Really, Really Free Enterprise”: California To Wal-Mart, No More Taxpayer Subsidized Profits For You
For years, Wal-Mart—and other large retail operators—have been piling up huge profits by controlling their labor costs through paying employees sub-poverty level wages. As a result, it has long been left to the taxpayer to provide healthcare and other subsidized benefits to the many Wal-Mart employees who are dependent on Medicaid, food stamp programs and subsidized housing in order to keep their families from going under.
With Medicaid eligibility about to be expanded in some 30 states, as a result of the Affordable Care Act, Wal-Mart has responded by cutting employee hours—and thereby wages—even further in order to push more of their workers into state Medicaid programs and increase Wal-Mart profits. Good news for Wal-Mart shareholders and senior management earning the big bucks—not so good for the taxpayers who will now be expected to contribute even larger amounts of money to subsidize Wal-Mart’s burgeoning profits.
But, at long last and in a move gaining popularity around the nation, the State of California is attempting to say ‘enough’ to Wal-Mart and the other large retailers who are looking to the taxpayers to take on the responsibility for the company’s employees—a responsibility Wal-Mart has long refused to accept.
It’s about time.
Legislation is now making its way through the California legislature—with the support of consumer groups, unions and, interestingly, physicians—that would levy a fine of up to $6,000 on employers like Wal-Mart for every full-time employee that ends up on the state’s Medi-Cal program—the California incarnation of Medicaid.
The amount of the fine is no coincidence.
A report released last week by the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce, estimates that the cost of Wal-Mart’s failure to adequately pay its employees could total about $5,815 per employee each and every year of employment.
“Accurate and timely data on Wal-Mart’s wage and employment practices is not always readily available. However, occasional releases of demographic data from public assistance programs can provide useful windows into the scope of taxpayer subsidization of Wal-Mart. After analyzing data released by Wisconsin’s Medicaid program, the Democratic staff of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce estimates that a single 300- person Wal-Mart Supercenter store in Wisconsin likely costs taxpayers at least $904,542 per year and could cost taxpayers up to $1,744,590 per year – about $5,815 per employee.”
Says Sonya Schwartz, program director at the National Academy for State Academy for State Health Policy, “There are concerns that employers will be gaming this new system and taking less and less responsibility for their workers. This may make employers think twice.”
Of course, the California Retailers Association, where Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. is listed as a board member company, is not quite so pleased with the legislation. According to Bill Dombrowski, chief executive of the Association, ”It’s one of the worst job-killer bills I’ve seen in my 20 years in Sacramento, and that says a lot. The unions are fixated on Wal-Mart, but that’s not the issue here. It’s a monster project to implement the Affordable Care Act, and having this thrown on top is not helpful.”
One wonders if we will ever see the day when Americans will stop falling for the hostage-taking narrative consistently put forward by those whose job it is to defend the indefensible. At the first suggestion of finally putting a chink in Wal-Mart’s policy of profiting at the taxpayers’ expense—a practice that should have every American thinking about what passes for free-enterprise in the United States today—the response is to always threaten to take away jobs if we dare to challenge their business practices, even if those practices cost us billions.
While the unions may, indeed, be “fixated” on Wal-Mart, it is hard to miss the fact that Mr. Dombrowski did not even attempt to explain why it is acceptable policy for taxpayers to continue subsidizing Wal-Mart’s ever expanding profits. Nor does Dombrowski attempt to deal with the fact that, according to a Los Angeles Times report, an additional 130,000 people working for large and profitable firms will go onto California’s Medi-Cal rolls over the next few years, bringing the total number of Medicaid recipients in the Golden State who are employed by large companies to just under 400,000 people.
Note that these are not people who rely on ‘government handouts’ because they do not wish to work. Rather, these are people who show up to do their jobs for as many hours a week as their employer will permit them to work.
Interestingly, the federal law imposes a penalty on companies with more than 50 employees who do not provide health insurance to an employee working over 30 hours per week. The feds also penalize a company when its workers buy their own healthcare coverage on an exchange and receives a government subsidy to do so.
However, there is no penalty imposed by the federal government on a company when a company’s workers become eligible for Medicaid.
Think that this ‘oversight’ had anything to do with Wal-Mart’s early support of the Affordable Care Act?
The result is that companies like Wal-Mart are actually encouraged by the federal policy to pay their workers even smaller sums without providing healthcare benefits so that even more of their workers will qualify for Medicaid.
What I always find fascinating is that the very people who are so critical of the subsidies provided by Obamacare to lower-earning Americans (how many times have these people reminded us that “someone is paying for these subsidies”) never seem to have much of a problem with the subsidies we pay to support Wal-Mart’s massive profits by picking up the healthcare tab for so many of the company’s employees. But then, those who support taxpayers doing the job that Wal-Mart should be doing tend to be the same folks who are quick to suggest that nobody is forcing workers to take a job at Wal-Mart. Apparently, these people are operating under the opinion that a Wal-Mart worker earning below the federal poverty level wouldn’t readily move to a better paying job if such a job were available to that worker.
The good news is that the proposed California legislation has a very good chance of becoming law. While the proposed legislation will require a 2/3 vote in both the Senate and Assembly, Democrats currently have supermajorities in both legislative bodies in the state.
Let’s hope that California gets this done and other states are quick to follow California’s lead. This is legislative action whose time is long overdue.
By: Rick Ungar, Op-Ed Contributor, Forbes, June 3, 2013
Bangladesh is half a world away from Bentonville, the Arkansas city where Wal-Mart is headquartered. This week, Wal-Mart surely wishes it were farther away than that.
Over the weekend, a horrific fire swept through a Bangladesh clothing factory, killing more than 100 workers, many of whose bodies were burnt so badly that they could not be identified. In its gruesome particulars — locked doors, no emergency exits, workers leaping to their deaths — the blaze seems a ghastly centennial reenactment of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911, when 146 workers similarly jumped to their deaths or were incinerated after they found the exit doors were locked.
The signal difference between the two fires is location. The Triangle building was located directly off New York’s Washington Square. Thousands watched the appalling spectacle of young workers leaping to the sidewalks 10 stories down; reporters and photographers were quickly on the scene. It’s not likely, however, that the Bangladesh disaster was witnessed by anyone from either the United States or Europe — the two markets for which the clothes made inside that factory were destined. For that, at least, Wal-Mart should consider itself fortunate.
The Bangladesh factory supplied clothing to a range of retailers, and officials who have toured the site said they found clothing with a Faded Glory label — a Wal-Mart brand. Wal-Mart says that the factory, which had received at least one bad report for its fire-safety provisions, was no longer authorized to make its clothing but one of the suppliers in the company’s very long supply chain had subcontracted the work there “in direct violation of our policies.”
If this were an isolated incident of Wal-Mart denying responsibility for the conditions under which the people who make and move its products labor, then the Bangladeshi disaster wouldn’t reflect quite so badly on the company. But the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work.
This system isn’t reserved just for workers in faraway lands: Tens of thousands of American workers labor under similar arrangements. Many are employed at little more than the minimum wage in the massive warehouses in the inland exurbs of Los Angeles, where Wal-Mart’s imports from Asia are trucked from the city’s harbor to be sorted and packaged and put on the trucks and trains that take them to Wal-Mart stores for a thousand miles around.
The warehouses are run by logistics companies with which Wal-Mart contracts, and most of the workers are employed by some of the 200-plus temporary employment companies that have sprung up in the area — even though many of the workers have worked in the same warehouses for close to a decade. Last year, the California Department of Industrial Relations, suspecting that many of these workers were being cheated, charged one logistics company that runs a warehouse for Wal-Mart with failing to provide its employees with pay stubs and other information on their pay rates. Wal-Mart itself was not cited. That’s the beauty of its chain of deniability.
A small band of these warehouse workers has been demonstrating for the past couple of months to bring attention to the bizarrely contingent nature of their employment and the abuses that flow from it. Their numbers were augmented Friday by actual Wal-Mart employees in stores around the nation, calling attention to the everyday low wages and absence of benefits that the vast majority of the company’s 1.4 million U.S. employees receive.
Other discount retailers — notably Costco and Trader Joe’s — pay their workers far more, train them more extensively, have much lower rates of turnover and much higher rates of sales per employee, according to a Harvard Business Review article by Zeynep Ton of the MIT Sloan School of Management. Costco is a very profitable business, but Wal-Mart maintains an even higher profit margin, which it achieves by underpaying its employees. The conservative economic blogger Megan McArdle estimates that if Wal-Mart held its profit margin down to Costco’s level, its average worker would make about $2,850 more each year — a considerable increase in a sector where workers’ earnings average less than $25,000 a year.
But Wal-Mart neither pays its own nor takes responsibility for those who make and move its wares. For America’s largest private-sector employer, the emergency exits are always open.
By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 27, 2012
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R) has a curious justification for vetoing a tax break last week for 240,000 Iowa families making $45,000 or less a year: the plan didn’t also include a tax break for corporations. Members of both partiesin the Iowa House and Senate agreed to increase the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), which reduces the amount of income taxes lower-income families owe:
The change would have saved Iowa families an estimated $28.5 million in taxes over two years.
Branstad vetoed that part of the bill writing that it is his desire to approach tax policy in a more comprehensive and holistic manner. [...]
Branstad additionally campaigned last year to slash Iowa’s corporate income tax rate by 50 percent, which he said would attract businesses while costing the state about $200 million a year in lost revenue. That proposal also failed.
Ironically, given Branstad’s fondness for expensive corporate tax breaks, he said he was concerned about the cost of the measure, estimated at $28.5 million a year. Branstad explained that he would only support “an overall tax reduction package that both fits within our sound budgeting principles while reducing those taxes that are impeding our state’s ability to compete for new business and jobs.”
Tim Albrecht, a spokesman for the governor, reiterated that Branstad would have supported the tax break if it had been part of a “larger effort” that included lower taxes for corporations. But since this tax break was only for poor families, Branstad suddenly abandoned his “strong support for tax relief.”
Sen. Joe Bolkcom (D), the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, points out that the EITC “is the most effective antipoverty program for working families.” Bolkcom said of Branstad’s veto, “He has again shown that he will only consider tax cuts that benefit Iowa’s wealthiest citizens and corporations.” The tax break for working families would have translated into more money for people to spend in Iowa’s economy, but Branstad apparently prefers “huge, unaffordable tax breaks for Wal-Mart and other wealthy out-of-state corporations.”
Branstad has the authority to veto individual items in spending measures. He also effectively shut down dozens of unemployment offices by vetoing language that would have prohibited the Iowa Workforce Development from closing 37 unemployment field offices across the state.
By: Marie Diamond, Think Progress, August 3, 2011