Wal-Mart offers workers new healthcare deal

Stephen Foley,Arkansas
Wednesday 19 April 2006 00:08 BST

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Wal-Mart has promised to offer new healthcare benefits to its employees and is beefing up its lobbying efforts in an attempt to counter criticism that it is a parsimonious employer.

The world's biggest retailer is facing a growing backlash against its work practices, its effect on communities and its domination of suppliers. But it has swung on to the offensive since the publication of negative books and the making of film length documentaries which have labelled it as the "Bully of Bentonville".

Campaigners have long argued that Wal-Mart's ability to offer consumers extra low prices comes at the expense of its 1.8 million workers, or "associates".

In an attempt to head off further negative publicity, the company has invited the US and international media to a two day conference in its native Arkansas. Attendees are hearing lectures on the company's work to reduce its environmental impact, and on how the company champions working families by creating employment and lowering shopping bills.

Healthcare has become a particular flashpoint in the US, and Wal-Mart's new vice president for associates, Susan Chambers, said the company would accelerate the introduction of new healthcare benefits and encourage employees to take them up. "Our goal is to be the champion over a million associates and to help them get the best possible healthcare."

Wal-Mart said yesterday that it lowering the employee contribution towards prescriptions for a wider range of illnesses, and would expand healthcare savings plans, where it matches the money employees put away. It has also brought forward the introduction of new rules for its cheapest health insurance policies. Employees will need to work for the company for a year, rather than for two, before being able to buy in.

The plans will be extended to cover part-time employees' children. That, says Wal-Mart, makes them unusual in the retail industry.

Critics continue to argue that Wal-Mart pays so little that few employees can afford even the most basic insurance offered by the company.

Their case is likely to be bolstered by Wal-Mart's public admission that the proportion of full-time jobs in its stores is "on a very gradual downward trend over time". About a quarter of workers are part-time, with fewer benefits and often lower pay than full-time colleagues.

The company has been bolstering its public relations operations and raised the number of lobbyists it employs from two to 14. It is trying to fend off a wave of state moves to impose additional health insurance demands on the company.

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