The value gap is a MarketWatch Q&A series with business leaders, academics, policy makers and activists on reducing racial and social inequalities.
Walmart, the employer of more than 1.6 million workers in the nation, has long been urged to improve conditions and pay the many hourly workers in its stores. The latest call comes from a California nonprofit that is asking the world’s largest retailer to increase the base wage of its American hourly workers by $ 5 an hour in the name of improving public health.
Human Impact Partners, a national nonprofit organization made up of researchers and public health professionals, wrote a letter this week to Walmart.
executives and board members, attaching their new research showing how a pay increase could result in specific improvements in the health of their workers and therefore benefit their communities. These include prolonging their lives for two years, preventing low birth weight rates, and more.
“All people deserve the right to economic security and, as public health experts, we know how critical living wages are to health and well-being,” the letter says. “Walmart has an opportunity to set a precedent for how essential workers are valued in our society.”
According to HIP’s investigation report – which is based on other studies, epidemiological data sets and information from the company itself – Walmart is the largest employer of women and people of color in the US now, that is “still totally inappropriate for working families”, says the group.
A Walmart spokesperson pointed to earlier statements from the company about recent wage increases, which he said raised the average wage of 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, the company’s chief sustainability officer, Kathleen McLaughlin, said that the company’s “salaries are competitive with other roles by role and location by location.” He also said the company aims to “achieve 2/3 full time for store employees per hour this year,” which should help drive pay and predictability.
The research report is an example of how the Oakland, California-based organization is trying to help drive policy change that focuses on health and equity. MarketWatch spoke with HIP Co-Director Lili Farhang, who has extensive experience in government public health and research, about the nonprofit’s work and approach, as well as why the nonprofit is targeting Walmart.
“Walmart is not alone in the way they treat their workers,” Farhang said. “America is unique in that it depends on someone’s workplace to provide what they need to lead a healthy life. … We need to fight on the policy front to make sure our government institutions do their part as well. And we have to keep putting pressure on these companies ”.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity:
Market Clock: If you were at a dinner party, how would you describe HIP’s mission and work?
Farhang: Most of us think of health and how it occurs 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 that exists, the truth is that what drives a person’s health are their social, economic and environmental conditions.
What we do is gather the experience and make it useful for social movements that try to improve people’s lives and conditions. Many times, people do not know that there is an evidence base that connects everything to health. We are trying to make it useful and feasible.
I believe that COVID-19 has opened people’s eyes to public health. We need to act as a community. My health is tied to yours. My well-being is linked to your well-being.
““Not having a stable income, not knowing if you can pay your bills, not knowing your schedule beforehand, all of that translates into stress.”“
Market Clock: You’re asking Walmart to raise its hourly workers’ wages by $ 5 by focusing on health. You can explain?
Farhang: The genesis of this work is how economic security affects health and well-being. Having a job and income are the biggest drivers of health. We have also looked at paid sick leave at Walmart and other corporations.
We focused on Walmart and how an increase would lead to very tangible improvements in the lives of its workers. Our study shows that it would help to increase life expectancy, in the prevention of low birth weight, [and] bring an improvement in self-reported health status and a reduction in mental health problems related to anxiety and depression.
This would pile up mostly for women and people of color, because that’s what makes up the company. [hourly wage] personal.
Market Clock: How important is a living wage for mental health specifically?
Farhang: All these external factors, such as having a living wage or affordable housing, or any of these social and economic determinants, get under the skin directly and indirectly.
Not having a stable income, not knowing if you can pay your bills, not knowing your schedule beforehand, all of this translates into stress. Some types of stress manifest as worry and anxiety, depression or anger and frustration. For some people, it is through all of these.
These mental health effects are independently significant and can directly affect physical health. You can develop [physical] health problems. They are all tied to each other.
Market Clock: How would Walmart’s increasing hourly associate wages affect the rest of the nation economically? The data shows that many Walmart associates receive public assistance.
Farhang: We focus on $ 5 instead of $ 1, $ 2 or $ 3 because we know that Walmart is paying well below a living wage, according to calculations by MIT and others. Many associates earn about $ 19,000 a year, less than the federal poverty level. No one can reasonably live on that anywhere.
We wanted to focus on Walmart because of its scale, scope, and ability to set a standard. What they do really matters. Your compensation practices really matter. Hundreds of thousands of your employees still earn less than $ 15 an hour [according to our research], while many other major retailers have increased their salaries to a base of $ 15.
Why not see what would happen if they could lead? We know you can afford this. Its profits have skyrocketed during the pandemic. There is so much research that Walmart associates have to rely on public benefits to fill in the gaps or rely on public healthcare. Increasing wages would reduce dependence on those benefits.
Market Clock: How would Walmart align in heeding its call with its stated commitment to racial fairness?
Farhang: If you look at their workforce and who they ask to subsist on those wages, their commitment to racial and gender equity is not borne out by their commitment to their workers. Besides not making things better, they actually make them worse.
When you think about their public commitments, sure, I’m glad they made a $ 100 million commitment. [last year] to support philanthropy in equity. But their commitment can best be seen in how they treat their own family and community. And right now they are making decisions about wages and benefits that do not demonstrate their stated commitment.
““The more you can expand the circle of concern and attract other sectors, and advocate with the organizers, the more you can generate change.”“
Market Clock: Is there anything Walmart has done recently that suggests it will seriously consider your call? This year, the company urged shareholders to vote against convening a report on aligning racial justice goals with starting salaries. Do you have other actions planned to try to pressure the company?
Farhang: We have the responsibility as researchers and experts in public health to continue analyzing these issues and bring them to the responsible institutions and corporations. We are part of a larger ecosystem that is committed to holding companies accountable. It’s about keeping the beat of the drums.
As an example, HIP supports the work of United for Respect, including worker-driven campaigns such as the Walmart Associate Push for an extra $ 5. [an] hour during the pandemic.
HIP’s approach to Walmart with our analysis and findings is in the spirit of partner efforts to drive Walmart to make concrete policy changes. We hope our research underscores and helps defend what associates have been asking for for nearly a decade: an increase in base pay to at least $ 15 an hour, if not more.
The more you can broaden the circle of concern and attract other sectors, and advocate with the organizers, the more you can generate change.
Market Clock: Can you talk a little more about HIP’s equity approach? How has HIP made a difference in other cases?
Farhang: One of the first projects I worked on when I first came to HIP in 2008 focused on paid sick days. In California, there was no law requiring employers to provide employees with paid sick days. We get involved with gender equity and other groups.
What would it mean to bring a public health perspective to advocate for paid sick days? People should not literally go to work sick and make other people sick. We publish reports in California, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and elsewhere.
California took six years to require employers to provide paid sick leave. These things take time. You have to be in it for the long haul. And it has yet to be done because there is no national law on paid sick leave, although it is being considered by Congress.
We continue to undermine, we continue to use our voice as public health professionals. We speak very explicitly of structural racism and other forms of power. One of the key ways we work is by supporting people who work on issues including housing affordability, economic security, policing, bond reform, and immigration.
This story has been updated with Walmart’s response to HIP.