Walmart, America's largest employer, quietly announced Monday that it would extend its health and other benefits to "domestic partners" of employees, including partners of the same sex. The announcement came quietly in a postcard sent to employees that listed five other changes in benefits for full-time associates' spouses and domestic partners, including a new vision plan.
Praising Walmart's decision as "a historic move," Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin says the company had signaled "that equality for LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) people is the simplest of mainstream values, and we look forward to continuing to work with them."
However, according to gay news blog Towleroad, which obtained a leaked internal memo from Walmart's senior vice president of benefits Sally Welborn, the new policy is "a business decision, not a moral or political decision."
Lucas Handy, an openly gay former Walmart associate from Fort Dodge, Iowa, also questioned whether the change is even affordable for Walmart workers.
"The real issue with Walmart's health care is that most of us are unable to afford the coverage," said Handy, who made $8.95 an hour before being fired in July.
While this decision is a undoubtedly a huge victory for gay rights, let's not forget that Walmart still has some very unfortunate employment practices that still need a lot of work:
1. Skimping on employee paychecks
Notoriously known for its poor wages, many of its workers often rely on food stamps and other government aid programs just to fulfill their basic needs.
According to a report released by the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, every Walmart center costs taxpayers close to $1.3 million in public benefits on average simply because the company's low wages forces their employees to rely on public assistance to make ends meet.
"When low wages leave Walmart workers unable to afford the necessities of life, taxpayers pick up the tab," the report says.
Paired with poor working conditions, the retail giant's low wages also led to numerous worker strikes at stores around the nation that started on Black Friday last year, including 10 police arrests outside a retailer in Washington, D.C. a few days ago.
"I'm not a screw-off employee by any means, and it's upsetting to me that I can't even support myself at 45 years old," said Barbara Gertz, a Walmart worker from Commerce City, Colorado.
2. Poor working conditions all around
Gawker published an article last month that included some pretty frightening workplace stories from anonymous Walmart employees that included reduced working hours resulting in having to go hungry, unchecked sexual harassment, and denied sick leave.
Instead of addressing these complaints, Walmart responded by asking their employees to send in happier stories instead.
"I was once talking about a family reunion I had attended and one manager went into full sprint up to me and demanded to know why I had said the word 'union.' When I told her 'I said REUNION, not union' she didn't believe me and decided to tear me down right there on the sales floor," one employee wrote.
Conditions abroad, however, don't fare much better either.
After a factory collapse in Bangladesh, labor advocates pressured Walmart and other American businesses to improve labor and working conditions abroad. However, the plan that Walmart and associates developed was met with stern criticism from labor activists.
While committing $42 million to pay for worker safety, inspections and an anonymous hot-line for workers to report concerns, the plan lacked legally binding commitments to pay for those improvements.
Multiple labor rights groups, including the Worker Rights Consortium and the Clean Clothes Campaign, criticized the plan and said the company was "unwilling to commit to a program under which they actually have to keep the promises they make to workers and accept financial responsibility for ensuring that their factories are made safe."
3. Still opposed to the "living wage" bill
Walmart's strong opposition to the controversial "living wage" bill certainly didn't paint a pretty picture of the retail giant.
The living wage law would require Walmart and other non-unionized retailers to pay their workers in Washington D.C. at least $12.50 an hour: 150% of the local minimum wage. Walmart, however, responded by threatening to pull out of plans to build at least three stores in the District should the bill become law.
In a preemptive op-ed, Walmart executive Alex Barron described the D.C. Council's pending decision on the bill as one that "discriminates against business and threatens to undo all that we have accomplished together."
The District, however, chose to stand up to the company's unethical labor practices. D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said the bill will be send to Mayor Vincent C. Gray by Friday for his signature or veto.
4. Anti-union stance
Although the majority of Walmart employees in countries such as China are members of unions, Walmart's anti-union stance within the U.S. constantly makes headlines every year.
Their official statement reads, "At Walmart, we respect the individual rights of our associates and encourage them to express their ideas, comments and concerns. Because we believe in maintaining an environment of open communications, we do not believe there is a need for third-party representation."
According to a Human Rights Watch report in 2007, Walmart continues to take advantage of holes in U.S. labor law to suppress any attempts at unionization from bombarding workers with messages of "disastrous results" that could occur if they organize to closing an entire store because employees decided to unionize.
Despite the waves of Walmart workers attempts to organize, the company still manages to prevail and maintain its anti-union stance.