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
"We'll be the largest on any list, just because of our size," Hurst
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 email@example.com.