With $444 billion in annual revenue, Walmart could be a country. And if it were, it would rank among the largest economies in the world.
But Walmart, admittedly the planet’s biggest retailer, is not a country. Instead, it is in one: ours.
Last week Walmart, a corporation that already employs some 1.4 million of its countrymen, made an announcement that its supporters, including first lady Michelle Obama, cheered as a patriotic gesture to this country, the one that made the Walton family rich. (Heirs to the Walmart fortune have a current net worth of about $90 billion.)
Company CEO Bill Simon said that beginning Memorial Day, Walmart will hire 100,000 veterans over the next five years. Every United States armed forces veteran who wants a job and has been honorably discharged in the first 12 months of his or her active duty can get work in a Walmart store, a Sam’s Club store, at the Bentonville, Ark., corporate headquarters or at one of the company’s many distribution centers.
Walmart critics are not buying into the notion of patriotism.
What they see is a cynical public relations gambit by a company wanting to bolster a corporate reputation that is held in disrepute by many Americans. Why, you ask? Because of:
- Its many low-paying jobs
- Its anathema to union organizing or the granting of health benefits to its workers
- Its overseas buying habits
- Recent scandals like a bribery investigation in Mexico and a deadly fire at Bangladesh factory that makes clothing for sale at Walmart stores
- Its status as the country’s major seller of firearms and ammunition.
The debate is an interesting one. Here are some of the highlights.
What’s Good for Walmart is Good for America
The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that the military discharges 160,000 active service members and 110,000 National Guard members and reservists every year. An estimated 32,000 of those new civilians will join the ranks of the nearly 1 million already unemployed American vets.
And while the jobs picture for veterans is beginning to look better – the annual unemployment rate for post 9/11 veterans decreased from 12.1 percent in 2011 to 9.9 percent in 2012 – young, male veterans ages 18-24 still have double the unemployment rate of their non-veteran peers. In 2011, one out of every three of them was looking for work.
By making the largest hiring commitment ever for U.S. veterans, by a private concern, Walmart hopes not only to “do what we think is right,” but also to help reverse the “national paralysis” that Simon maintains is keeping America waist-deep in an economic Big Muddy: “We don’t have to win an election, [or] convince Congress to pass a bill. . . . We can simply move forward.”
Simon also recognizes that hiring veterans is a good business decision for his company: “Veterans are leaders with discipline, training and a passion for service.”
So in this rosy scenario, it’s really a win-win for both Walmart and the nation.
The company helps hire the very people who most Americans believe are owed — at the very least — a job when they complete their service to their country. And Walmart in turn will get workers who, because of their respect of hierarchy and procedure and their trained commitment to an organization, tend to fit in well within the company’s highly structured business model.
What’s Good for Walmart is Bad for America
Critics warn not to be fooled by the Walmart’s posturing. By paying an average wage of $11.75 an hour — cashiers average $8.45 and overnight stockers $9.50 — and by offering little job security or health-care or retirement benefits and by changing employees’ work hours and schedules, the company is not offering anyone, including veterans, the kind of jobs that Americans want or need.
In reality, Walmart, because of its enormous size and the fact that most of its goods come from China and other low-wage countries, was instrumental in destroying the very kind of well-paying, benefit-rich, manufacturing jobs that other war-era veterans formerly enjoyed in this country and which helped create and maintain a thriving American middle-class.
Or as one detractor opined: “Walmart is one of the main reasons that these veterans no longer have jobs to come home to.”
And in hiring veterans, Walmart is only looking to protect itself from the kind of recent worker unrest that has given the company a bit of a public relations black eye. (See the Black Friday walk-out of hundreds of its employees.)
Because they already have government provided health insurance, veterans are less likely to trouble corporate brass with unreasonable requests for coverage.
Finally, one shouldn’t forget to follow the money.
In the same bill that Congress passed on New Year’s Day to avoid the so-called fiscal cliff, it extended for another year the Returning Heroes and Wounded Warriors work opportunity tax credits aimed at encouraging businesses to hire unemployed veterans.
For hiring a vet whose family is receiving supplemental nutrition assistance, a company can take a tax credit of $2,400. It can claim the same credit for hiring any veteran on a short-term basis.
For hiring a veteran discharged within the previous year who has a service connected disability, the credit is $4,800. In addition, there is a $5,600 tax credit for hiring a veteran who has been unemployed for an extended period, and a $9,600 tax credit for hiring a service-disabled veteran who has been unemployed for an extended period.
All in all, Walmart has the potential to make $560 million in tax credits for hiring 100,000 vets.
So much for the red, white, and blue, critics cry. It’s really about the green: the company’s need to keep its shareholders and top executives happy by always being in the black.
(By the way, that Walton fortune of $90 billion? It’s greater than the combined wealth of the bottom 40 percent of all American families.)
Is This One a Draw?
The upshot is that nobody is forcing any veteran to work for Walmart. So if one subscribes to the philosophy that any job is better than none at all, then Walmart is clearly providing work opportunities for some needy vets, especially those with scanty job skills who are having trouble finding employment in fields that require more education or training.
However, if you believe Walmart helped hollow out the American middle-class while downgrading the whole country’s economic aspirations, then nothing that it does will ever be seen as anything other than a typically amoral corporate move designed to protect only its own bottom line.
One thing that all can probably agree on is this: In hiring armed service veterans, the company, whose profits have soared recently from a buying frenzy of assault weapons, won’t have to spend a dime training their new salesmen.
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Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth Debt.org into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].