Walmart has spent the past year highlighting its wage increases for more than half a million employees, its multimillion dollar investments in equity initiatives, and its super-charged hiring during a pandemic that had otherwise led to record high unemployment rates.
But vocal groups of workers and advocates have challenged that narrative, pointing out that a sizable segment of the retailer’s roughly 1.6 million workers in the U.S. still make less than $15 an hour, wages that they contended were too low for workers to afford to miss work during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. The health crisis has marked a unique public health catastrophe that has led to nearly 600,000 deaths overall in the U.S. so far.
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At Walmart’s annual meeting Wednesday, in which participants could vote on a series of shareholder proposals addressing the retailer’s business practices, wages and working conditions, the two opposing narratives of the company’s actions were on display. Worker advocates presented proposals pushing Walmart to address its questions about wages on the lower end of its pay scale, and to allow workers more say in safety protocols, and Walmart’s board recommended against those proposals.
“Perhaps thousands of your workers suffered with this disease, spread it to family members or had to endure terrifying isolation, gasping for breath, all because they were too poor, too low-wage to be able to stay home,” civil rights leader Rev. Dr. William J. Barber 2nd said in a pre-recorded message played at the meeting.
Barber’s remarks came in support of a shareholder proposal by Cynthia Murray, a longtime Walmart worker in Maryland and a member of the worker advocacy group United for Respect. Murray proposed the creation of a Pandemic Workforce Advisory Council to allow workers more say in workplace safety policies.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Walmart’s chief executive officer Doug McMillon repeated messages of praise for the retailer’s store and warehouse workers, and recapped the company’s steps to support workers: since last fall, some 590,000 employees have received raises; the company implemented a “three-tier leave policy,” two of which offered paid leave, and the retailer took steps to address workplace safety by reducing store hours, conducting store cleanings, and putting up Plexiglass guards at cashier stations.
“Our associates are an inspiration,” he said. “Since all these recent challenges began, we’ve witnessed courage, kindness and generosity from them.”
But employees and advocates have argued that wages below $15-an-hour are not livable in 2021, and sought more transparency and agency in company decision-making. A year of record sales — Walmart drew in some $560 billion in sales in the last fiscal year, a $40 billion increase from the previous year — came at the backs of employees showing up to stores to face customers as a dangerous contagion spread, worker advocates said.
“The company has made steady progress promoting people of color and increased philanthropic investments to advance racial equity,” said Sister Susan Ernster, vice president and treasurer of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration in Wisconsin, a Walmart shareholder. “However, we believe more can and should be done to reduce the racial inequities and improve economic justice within our company.
“As people of faith, we don’t feel comfortable benefiting from the company’s record performance, while so many of our associates must rely on government subsidies for food and health care,” she said at the meeting.
Walmart’s board also recommended voting against the Franciscan Sisters’ proposal for a report addressing questions about the retailer’s starting pay and its stated commitment to racial justice in light of the company’s disclosures that people of color make up nearly half of all its hourly workers.
McMillon said Wednesday the company has previously already increased its lowest wages from $9 an hour to $11 an hour, and that it would continue to raise wages over time.
“I think our track record would indicate that we do plan to continue raising wages over time as well as improving our health care offer,” he said at the meeting. “We just simply can’t do everything at once.”
Wednesday’s meeting also involved a “nonbinding advisory vote” on Walmart executive compensation. According to the company’s proxy statement in April, McMillon’s pay was to be $22.6 million, about 70 percent of which was in the form of stock awards that may or may not be realized to their full value. Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner earned $11.3 million in salary and stock awards, while Sam’s Club CEO Kathryn McLay’s total pay package was $13 million.
Walmart’s record business last year also saw the rapid growth of online sales as professional class customers stayed home and shopped. The company’s global e-commerce penetration grew from roughly 7.5 percent of sales during fiscal year 2020, to about 12.5 percent of sales last quarter, McMillon said, adding that the company is expected to reach $100 billion in e-commerce sales over the next couple of years. That represents rapid growth but while Walmart is still larger than Amazon overall, the latter has been generating online sales of more than $100 billion a quarter in the last two quarters.