Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) is the country’s biggest private employer. Its low wages have incited labor protests and congressional criticism, and have created a cottage industry of public policy research. The company has responded with facts and figures that sometimes raise as many questions as they answer.
Now Wal-Mart has provided some new and useful information: More than 475,000 of its 1 million hourly store employees earn at least $25,000 a year for full-time work. This figure comes from Bill Simon, the president and chief executive officer of Walmart U.S., who presented (PDF) it at Goldman Sachs’s (GS) Global Retailing Conference last month. The statistic, which was listed under the heading “Great job opportunities,” means as many as 525,000 full-time hourly employees earn less than $25,000 a year.
OUR Walmart, the union-backed workers’ group that’s been staging protests and asking for higher wages, pointed this out during a press conference in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. (The company’s presentation is also on its website.) Three store associates, as well as three Democratic members of the House of Representatives, called on the retail giant to pay all of its full-time workers at least $25,000 a year.
“A decent wage is their demand—a livable wage, of all things,” said Representative George Miller (D-Calif.). The problem with companies like Wal-Mart is their “unwillingness, not their inability, to pay that wage,” he said. “They hand off the difference to taxpayers.” Miller was referring to a congressional report (PDF) released in May that calculated how much Walmart workers rely on public assistance. The study found that the 300 employees at one Supercenter in Wisconsin required some $900,000 worth of public assistance a year. Catherine Ruetschlin, an analyst at Demos, the progressive policy center, noted during the press conference that raising wages can be good for the overall economy. “Putting money into workers’ wallets puts cash in the registers of retailers, and with it the need for new employees,” she said. “We estimate that a raise to $25,000 a year would lead to at least $11 billion of new GDP and generate 100,000 new jobs.”
“We have hundreds of thousands of associates who are making $25,000 a year or more,” says Kory Lundberg, a Wal-Mart spokesman. “And the opportunity exists for those who aren’t to grow into the career they want. We promote 160,000 people a year.” Lundberg also explained how to parse some of Wal-Mart’s figures. The company has 1.3 million hourly workers, which led OUR Walmart to claim at the press conference that 825,000 of them made less than $25,000 a year. Lundberg points out that Simon’s presentation was referring to the 1 million who work in the stores. (The rest work as truck drivers and at the Bentonville (Ark.) headquarters, among other places.) So about 52 percent of its associates make less than $25,000 a year—not 63 percent.
Then Lundberg led me deep into the company’s website to find where Wal-Mart states its average full-time hourly wage: $12.83. How many employees work full-time? Wal-Mart will only say that it’s the majority.