A lot of times, it would be really nice to believe what Walmart has to say about the number of jobs and the kinds of benefits that the company will be offering in the four stores it plans to build in D.C. over the next two years. At meetings, spokesman Keith Morris acknowledges past criticisms of the company’s benefits plan, and says things are better.
“In the past, was it unaffordable? Maybe it was, but today, for the price of a happy meal every week, I can get full medical, dental, optical insurance,” Morris said at a meeting in Brightwood several weeks ago. “Things have changed. Maybe some of the criticism that was out there before helped us get better, but that’s where it is today.”
One of the benefits spokesman Morris has mentioned at a couple of meetings is “profit sharing”—the company’s longstanding practice of automatically contributing an additional two percent of an employee’s salary to an account that won’t be taxed until it starts being used, and another two percent to a 401(k) plan. The company once touted it as a part of founder Sam Walton‘s management philosophy, giving associates a stake in the company’s success.
But at a meeting last week, under questioning from a union representative, Morris admitted that the company actually ceased its profit sharing plans in February, and none of the workers in its D.C. stores will be able to take advantage of it. Instead, Walmart will match six percent of the money an employee contributes to his 401(k) account. Morris defended the switch as a better deal for workers, but Bloomberg reported back in October 2010 that it was a cost-saving move for the company. Employees have to wait for a year until they’re eligible, and participation rates in the high-turnover retail industry are much lower than the average, since people living on Walmart wages are less willing to forego six percent of their salaries, even if it pays dividends down the road.
This is the kind of thing that magnifies my unease about Walmart’s entry into the District: What other promises will we find are less than what we expected? The District’s desperation for jobs is so great that legislators and opinion-makers are willing to trust that Walmart has learned from past mistakes. But when the retailer won’t commit to signing anything it puts in writing—Morris danced around questions about an enforcement mechanism for anything Walmart says it will do—it’s a good idea to wonder why.