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Wal-Mart fights benefits disclosure in Minnesota
by Chris Serres    Star Tribune
Entered into the database on Friday, June 03rd, 2005 @ 18:17:17 MST


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Wal-Mart Stores Inc. does not want Minnesotans to know how many of its workers in this state receive public health care assistance.

The world's largest retailer has denounced as a public-relations ploy legislation -- which some state legislators have dubbed the "anti-Wal-Mart bill" -- that would create a public list of companies whose workers are enrolled in MinnesotaCare and other government-funded health care programs.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant recently sent two executives to St. Paul to lobby against the bill, which the Legislature may vote on in special session this month. Wal-Mart also sent a two-page letter describing its health care benefits to every legislator in the state.

"This is not health care reform," said Nate Hurst, public and government relations manager for Wal-Mart. "This is a campaign against Wal-Mart."

But proponents of the bill, whose chief author is Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, say the public has a right to know which employers have become a drain on the state's public health care system. They say the bill does not target Wal-Mart in particular but is meant to see how the state can work with companies to provide better health care programs.

In the last fiscal year, the state government spent $270.2 million for MinnesotaCare, a program that provides assistance for people who don't have access to affordable insurance. Yet no one in the state government knows which employers have the most workers enrolled in the program.

"If it's true what people say, that big multinational companies are outsourcing health care to taxpayers, then it would be good to have a handle on which ones," said Rep. Sheldon Johnson, DFL-St. Paul. "It's just information."

But it's information that Wal-Mart fears, and for good reason. In other states that have compiled such lists, Wal-Mart has come at or near the top among employers with workers enrolled in state medical assistance. Once such findings are made public, they can be used by opponents of Wal-Mart to stir up support for punitive measures against big-box retailers.

In Wisconsin, for instance, the Department of Health and Family Services reported last week that Wal-Mart employees topped the list of BadgerCare recipients, a state health care program for low-income residents.

A Wisconsin state representative has introduced a bill that would force big-box retailers to reimburse the state for providing the health care needs of their under-paid and under-insured employees.

The bill would place a graduated 1 percent to 2 percent tax on gross receipts on any store that exceeds $20 million in sales in a taxable year, and that allocates less than 10 percent of its payroll to health insurance for its employees. The bill applies only if the retailer fails to pay full-time, entry-level employees at least $22,000 a year, or about $10.58 per hour; or if more than 25 percent of the retailer's workforce is part-time. The revenue would go to the state's Medical Assistance trust fund.

All told, 24 state legislatures nationwide have bills pending that would create lists of employers with large numbers of workers enrolled in public health programs, according to the National Conference of State Legislators.

Labor groups such as the United Food and Commercial Workers union worried that other retailers will reduce their health care benefits in order to remain competitive with Wal-Mart, have trumpeted the findings from these lists as evidence that Wal-Mart is not providing affordable health care insurance to its employees and deserves to be more tightly regulated.

On Thursday, a UFCW-funded group called "Wake-Up Wal-Mart" held a series of press conferences in eight states calling on Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott to reimburse state taxpayers for "the tens of millions of dollars used to subsidize Wal-Mart health care."

Yet Wal-Mart officials insist that such rankings give consumers a warped perspective of its record and are part of a deliberate attempt by these groups to damage the retailer's reputation.

As the nation's largest employer, Wal-Mart inevitably will fall at or near the top of most state rankings. As of October, Wal-Mart employed 17,329 people in Minnesota.

"We'll be the largest on any list, just because of our size," Hurst said.

The company is also concerned about how such data are collected, Hurst said. If a state compiles a list in December, for instance, the numbers may look abnormally high because Wal-Mart employs a large amount of seasonal employees who lack health care insurance leading up to the Christmas holiday, he said.

"There is so much we don't know about how this information would be gathered," Hurst said. "Is the agency collecting this information verifying if that person works for Wal-Mart? Do they check if that person works part-time [with health benefits] somewhere else?"

In a May 18 letter to state legislators, Wal-Mart lashed out at legislation that "fails to provide health insurance to anyone and does not take people off America's uninsured list. It is nothing more than a misguided, destructive assault on a business trying to create 100,000 new jobs this year."

Wal-Mart said in its letter that it actually helps lift employees off the public health care rolls by giving them jobs. Seven percent of its hourly store employees were on Medicaid three months before joining Wal-Mart, but that dropped to 5 percent once they joined, the company said in the letter. All told, Wal-Mart estimates that 160,000 people have been taken off the list of public health care programs nationwide by accepting jobs at Wal-Mart.

"Please be assured that we do not encourage the use of public assistance, and we do not structure our plans with the idea that there will be a governmental safety net," Wal-Mart said in the letter.

Chris Serres is at