The value gap is a Q&A series from MarketWatch with business leaders, academics, policy makers, and activists working to reduce racial and social inequalities.
Walmart, the employer of more than 1.6 million workers in the country, has long been urged to improve conditions and pay the many hourly workers in its stores. The latest call comes from a California nonprofit calling on the world's largest retailer to raise the base salary for its US workers by $ 5 an hour to improve public health.
Human Impact Partners, a national not-for-profit made up of public health practitioners and researchers, sent a letter to Walmart this week. written
Executives and Board Members and attach their new study showing how wage increases could lead to specific improvements in the health of their workers and thus benefit their communities. These include extending their lives by two years, preventing low birth weight rates, and more.
"Everyone deserves economic security – and as public health experts we know the importance of viable wages to health and wellbeing," the letter said. "Walmart has an opportunity to set a precedent for how important workers are valued in our society."
According to HIP's research brief – based on other studies, epidemiological datasets, and information from the company itself – Walmart is the largest employer of women and black people in the US, despite the company increasing its base hourly wage by $ 11 last month an hour to $ 12 an hour, that is "still completely insufficient for working families," says the group.
A Walmart spokesperson pointed to earlier statements by the company about recent wage increases that have raised the average wage from 1.2 million hourly workers to $ 16.40 an hour. Starting wages range from $ 12 to $ 17 an hour, according to Walmart. In a written response to HIP, Kathleen McLaughlin, the company's chief sustainability officer, said "the company's wages are competitive with the role of others and location for location." She also said the company intends to "achieve 2/3 full-time for hourly store workers this year," which should help improve pay and predictability.
The research report is an example of how the Oakland, California-based organization seeks to bring about policy change that places health and equity at its center. MarketWatch spoke to HIP co-director Lili Farhang, who has extensive public health and research experience, about the work and approach the nonprofit is doing, and why the nonprofit is targeting Walmart.
"Walmart isn't the only one treating their workers," Farhang said. “The US is unique in that it depends on a person's job to give them what they need to live healthy lives. … We must fight on the political front to ensure that our state institutions also do their part. And we have to keep putting pressure on these companies. "
The interview was edited for the sake of length and clarity:
Market observation: If you were at a dinner party, how would you describe the mission and work of HIP?
Farhang: Most of us think of health and how it arises as a product of our individual choices. About going to the doctor and hearing what the doctor says. If you look at the universe of research, the truth is what drives a person's health, their social, economic, and environmental conditions.
What we do is pool expertise and make it useful for social movements that are trying to improve people's lives and conditions. Often times, people don't know that there is some evidence base that links everything to health. We're trying to make it useful and actionable.
I think COVID-19 has opened people's eyes to public health. We have to act as a community. My health is related to your health. My well-being is related to your well-being.
""Not having a stable income, not knowing if you can pay your bills, not knowing your schedule in advance – all of this leads to stress."”
Market observation: They ask Walmart to raise workers' hourly wages by $ 5 by putting health first. Can you explain?
Farhang: The origin of this work lies in how economic security affects health and wellbeing. Work and income are the most important factors in health. We also looked at paid sick leave at Walmart and other companies.
We focus on Walmart and how a raise would lead to very tangible improvements in the lives of its employees. Our study shows that it would help extend life expectancy, prevent low birth weight, [and] improve self-reported health and reduce mental health problems related to anxiety and depression.
This would primarily flow to women and people of color, because they make up the company's [hourly] workforce.
Market observation: How important is a living wage specifically for mental health?
Farhang: All of these external factors – things like living wages or affordable housing, or any of those social and economic determinants – get under your skin directly and indirectly.
Not having a stable income, not knowing if you will be able to pay your bills, not knowing your schedule in advance – all of these lead to stress. Some stress manifests itself as worry and fear, depression or anger and frustration. For some people, it's over and done with.
These mental health effects are independently important and can directly affect physical health. You can develop [physical] health problems. They are all connected to each other.
Market observation: How would an increase in hourly wages for Walmart employees economically affect the rest of the nation? The data shows that many Walmart employees receive public support.
Farhang: We focus on $ 5 versus $ 1, 2, or 3 because we know that Walmart pays well below the subsistence level, according to MIT and other calculations. Many employees make about $ 19,000 annually, which is below the federal poverty line. Nowhere can we make a reasonable living from it.
We wanted to focus on Walmart for its size, scope, and ability to set a standard. What they do is really important. Your compensation practices are really important. Hundreds of thousands of their employees are still earning less than $ 15 an hour [according to our research] while many other large retailers have increased their wages to $ 15.
Related: A wage of $ 15 is becoming the norm as employers struggle to fill jobs
Why not see what would happen if they could lead? We know they can afford it. Their profits have skyrocketed during the pandemic. There is so much research out there that Walmart employees rely on public services to fill the gaps or rely on public health services. An increase in wages would reduce dependence on these benefits.
Market observation: If Walmart followed your call, how would Walmart be consistent with its avowed commitment to racial justice?
Farhang: If you look at their workforce and who they ask to live on those wages, their commitment to racial and gender equality is not confirmed in their commitment to their workers. Aside from not making things better, they make things worse.
Of course, when you think about their public commitments, I'm glad they pledged $ 100 million [last year] to support philanthropy with equity. However, their commitment is best shown in how they treat their own family and community. And right now, they're making decisions about wages and benefits that don't demonstrate their avowed commitment.
""The more you broaden the circle of worries and bring other sectors with you and get involved with the organizers, the more you can bring about change."”
Market observation: Does something Walmart has been up to lately is seriously considering your call? The company earlier this year called on shareholders to vote against a call for a report on aligning racial justice goals with starting wages. Have you planned any further measures to put pressure on the company?
Farhang: As researchers and experts in public health, we have a responsibility to shed further light on these questions and to bring them to the relevant institutions and companies. We are part of a larger ecosystem that is committed to holding companies accountable. The point here is to keep the drum beat going.
For example, HIP supports the work of United for Respect, including employee-driven campaigns like Walmart employees pushing an extra $ 5 hour [on] during the pandemic.
HIPs contacting Walmart with our analysis and results is in line with the efforts of the employees to induce Walmart to make specific policy changes. We hope that our research underscores and helps back up what employees have been asking for for nearly a decade: an increase in base salaries to at least $ 15 an hour, if not more.
The more you expand the circle of concerns and bring in other sectors and get involved with the organizers, the more you can bring about change.
Market observation: Can you say a little more about HIP's equity approach? How has HIP changed in other cases?
Farhang: One of the very first projects I worked on when I joined HIP in 2008 was focused on paid sick leave. There was no law in California requiring employers to give employees paid sick leave. We got involved in gender equity and other groups.
What would it mean to bring in a public health perspective to advocate for paid sick leave? People literally shouldn't go to work sick and make others sick. We have published reports in California, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and other locations.
It was six years before California required employers to provide paid sick leave. These things take time. You have to be there in the long run. And it's still not done because there is no national paid sick leave law, even though Congress is considering it.
We keep hacking, keep using our voices as public health professionals. We talk very explicitly about structural racism and other forms of power. One of our main ways of working is helping people working on issues such as housing affordability, economic security, policing, bail reform and immigration.
This story has been updated with Walmart's response to HIP.