Walmart’s free healthcare plan and why strikers shouldn’t care

Photo by Flickr member peoplesworld. Available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license.

Mammoth retail giant, Walmart, announced last week that it will cover 100% of healthcare costs for its US employees needing specialty heart, spine and transplant surgeries. And that’s not all.  For those needing treatment in what it calls its ‘Centers of Excellence’ program, the company is also offering an all-expenses-paid trip to some of the nation’s most prestigious hospitals. Coincidentally (but perhaps not), this news comes amid the first strike ever launched against the retailer in its 50-year history, with protests currently spreading across 28 stores in 12 states.

What are the health implications of this program and what do they mean in the context of worker strife? Examining the initiative on its own suggests that any beneficial impact the program might have on worker health is severely limited.

Sally Welborn, senior vice president of the chain’s global benefits says, “We devoted extensive time developing Centers of Excellence in order to improve the quality of care our associates receive”.

But how many of Walmart’s ‘associates’ will actually be able to benefit from this program? To benefit workers must first be covered under the retailer’s healthcare plan, comprising not only an elusive number of employees, but most likely a dwindling group as well. In 2009, the company claimed that 52% of its 1.4m employees were covered; however this was before it eliminated health benefits for its part-time employees and hiked premiums for its full-time workers. And since then, the retail giant has declined to give figures of those covered. A Walmart watch group called Making Change at Walmart, estimates that for an average employee who earns $8.81/hr and works 34 hours per week, some of Walmart’s 2012 healthcare plans would cost between 77% and 104% of the employee’s annual gross income. This perhaps explains studies which show that Walmart workers are more likely than others in the industry to rely on government benefits, as well as criticisms that taxpayers are subsidizing the company by paying the healthcare costs of workers who are not insured on the company’s plan.

If the fact that the Centers of Excellence program is problematic to the extent that its impact on worker health will be seriously limited, even more problematic is the fact that it conveys a false sense of consideration for the lives and health of its workers. For while the Centers of Excellence program certainly is a great initiative for those who can afford the company’s insurance, most likely its upper managers and executives, clearly the well-being of the majority of its workers is not the company’s primary concern.  Moreover, while the program’s stated aim is to improve the quality of care for its employees, Walmart consistently disregards workers’ quality of life. Adverse working conditions have become a hallmark of Walmart’s employment model, brought more sharply into the public’s focus by various corporate watch groups, journalistic first-hand accounts like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickled and Dimed, and now by the growing display of Walmart workers walking off the job.

In this context, the announcement of the new program, whether deliberate in its timing or not, has the potential to direct attention away from the concerns being voiced by striking workers. And not only does it initiate publicity which is distracting to legitimate calls for living-wages and better working conditions, it is an implicit challenge to valid attempts by workers to improve the conditions of their lives. This is because it covertly throws into question the basis on which workers are protesting. In other words, it provokes the question, “Why are workers striking if Walmart is so obviously concerned with worker well-being?”. However, any achievement in the improvement of workers’ health is much more likely to come from the demands being voiced in opposition to the company’s current modus operandi. Indeed if striking workers are able to secure higher wages and better working conditions, health improvements are likely to have ripple effects beyond that of individual workers to both the workers’ families as well as to their broader communities.

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