Celebrating Let’s Move’s third birthday – National Consumers League

By Teresa Green, Linda Golodner Food Safety & Nutrition Fellow and Michell K. McIntyre, Director of NCL’s Special Project on Wage Theft

This week, First Lady Michelle Obama is touring the country to celebrate the third anniversary of her Let’s Move initiative. The goals of Let’s Move are:

  1. Creating a healthy start for children
  2. Empowering parents and caregivers
  3. Providing healthy food in schools
  4. Improving access to healthy, affordable foods
  5. Increasing physical activity

Through her various activities, Obama has increased national focus on alarming rates of childhood overweight and obesity; currently, one-third of children fall into this category. By putting the spotlight on increasing the health of school lunches and the importance of physical activity, Let’s Move has started important national conversations about the health of our children.

Additionally, the First Lady has worked with various restaurants and grocery store chains to develop healthier options, in the case of restaurants by decreasing the amount of salt and calories across their menus and by adding healthier default options to their children’s menu. By working with grocery stores committed to decreasing the number of food deserts by building new stores, Obama is also addressing the question of equitable access to healthy food.

While all of this work to ensure our children have a fair shot at a healthy future is beyond admirable, the companies the First Lady has chosen to work with to achieve these goals are not always so admirable. Specifically, both Walmart, the largest retailer in America, and Darden Restaurant Inc, the largest restaurant group in the U.S. and owner of the Olive Garden, Red Lobster, LongHorn Steakhouse and other restaurants, face widespread criticism about their treatment of workers, including numerous cases of wage and hour violations ranging from unpaid overtime to unpaid minimum wage to forcing employees to work off the clock – all forms of wage theft.

Despite revenues easily topping $113 billion, the average Walmart associate makes just $8.81 per hour and working full-time (which Walmart defines as 34 hours per week) would make just $15,576 per year. That means hundreds of thousands of people who work full-time at Walmart still live below the poverty line, forcing many to utilize state subsidized benefits. Three major studies – one in Georgia, one in California and one in Massachusetts – found that Walmart was the company whose employees were most reliant on government assistance. Making Change at Walmart estimates that Walmart employees cost taxpayers more than $1 billion nationwide.

Between July 2005 and June 2011, Walmart settled an estimated 70 state and federal class action wage and hour lawsuits and lost one jury trail, involving well over a million current and former employees and costing the company over $1 billion. The lawsuits covered wage and hour violations that occurred between the late 1990s and 2010, including unpaid wages and lack of legally required breaks. Walmart also faces gender discrimination class action lawsuits stemming from their policies and practices on promotion and pay.

Darden has also had their share of employment problems, ranging from wage and hour violations to racial and gender discrimination lawsuits and policies that result in below poverty level wages for employees. As a part of the restaurant industry, Darden is allowed to pay tipped workers the tipped minimum wage – a mere $2.13 an hour. Tipped workers rely on restaurant customers for the majority of their wages. Even at $7.25 an hour, workers only earn $15,080 a year, well below the income level needed to lift a family of three out of poverty ($19,090 – based on data from the Department of Health and Human Services). With more than half a billion in profits in 2010 alone, Darden can surely provide better wages and benefits to its workers.

According to ROC United’s Saru Jayaraman, whose book “Behind the Kitchen Door” highlights Darden’s practices, employees report they are forced to work through their breaks, off the clock, and overtime without proper compensation.

Last fall Darden ‘tested’ a program to move full-time workers to part-time in order to avoid paying health benefits under the ACA. When consumer backlash ensued and profits tanked for the last quarter, (CNBC article “Darden Profit Sinks as Restaurant Promos Fall Flat” and Washington Post article “How Not to Succeed in Business: Promise to Dodge Obamacare Mandates”) Darden abandoned this ‘test program’. Like Walmart, Darden faces gender discrimination lawsuits as well as racial discrimination lawsuits.

We admire the First Lady’s Let’s Move initiative, but she can and should also play a much bigger role in promoting both fair and equitable workplaces while touting healthier food and lifestyles.