Wal-Mart Steps out on Health Care Reform, Prompting Attack by Retail Federation – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

As the Congress begins to consider several different approaches to universal health insurance, Wal-Mart, the giant retailer, has come out in favor of an employer mandate to cover health insurance. That alone is a breakthrough for health care reform since Wal-Mart has been heavily criticized for its record of poor worker pay and benefits, including lack of affordable health care. In response to criticism from unions, Wal-Mart now provides health care to 52 percent of its workers, up from 46 percent three years ago.

What is shocking is that the National Retail Federation, a federation of retailers across the United States, is condemning Wal-Mart’s actions and is encouraging its members to take a stand against Wal-Mart. “They [members of the federation] really don’t want Wal-Mart to define the health care debate,” said a spokesman for the retail federation.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey, the retail industry covers only 45 percent of its workers. Some retailers have expanded their health care coverage — Toys R Us and Home Depot included — in an effort to reduce employee turnover. And others have stood out for a long time as exemplary in the coverage they provide; Costco Wholesale Corporation has for years had generous health benefits for its employees, and more than 90 percent have coverage. Costco officials say that providing these benefits has boosted employees’ productivity.

So what do the bills say about an employer health care mandate? The House bill would require most employers over a certain size to provide workers with basic benefits or contribute up to 8 percent of their payroll toward helping the government pay for their coverage. A Senate bill would place a larger obligation on employers of low wage workers. Wal-Mart told the Wall Street Journal that “…we believe we have taken a pro-business position. The present system is not sustainable.”

Wal-Mart support for an employer mandate was expressed in a letter sent to the White House that was co-signed by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union (which holds a seat on the NCL board) and John Podesta, CEO of the Center for American Progress.

It’s a shame that in 2009 we have a major force in American business taking such a reactionary position on the coverage of basic health benefits. America is the only industrialized country that doesn’t provide health coverage for its people. The National Retail Federation should take a page from one of its own, Costco, which has shown that providing good benefits and health insurance to workers actually increases productivity and improves its bottom line.