Why Raising Wages at Walmart Would Make America Healthier


Walmart’s recent wage increase to $10 an hour does not cover the basic needs — food, health insurance, housing, transportation, clothing, and childcare — of the American people. A group is calling for wages to be raised to $15 per hour. Here’s why that would actually make the rest of us healthier, too. (Photo: Getty Images)

“If I make $15 an hour, I can afford transportation,” Lisa Pietro of Florida said on Thursday at the relaunch of the OUR Walmart movement.

The group is organizing Walmart employees to see that every Walmart associate, regardless of his or her title, age, race, or sex, is respected at Walmart. And crucial to that success, say the organizers, is the company ensuring that its associates make $15 an hour and are guaranteed consistent, full-time hours if they want them.

Because she is unable to afford transportation on her current hourly wage at Walmart, Pietro walks to work. While walking at 4 a.m. one day to get to work in time for her early morning shift, she was accosted. When she went to her supervisor and asked for an accommodation for her situation — a change in shifts to ensure that she would be walking only in the daylight and with plenty of people around — her supervisor told her he would cut her hours instead of adjusting her shift.

“I told him I would rather have him cut my hours than have someone cut my throat,” Pietro said at last week’s rally. “I work hard,” she adds. “I don’t want to have to rely on the government to cover my bills and pay for my groceries.”

This, unfortunately, is the reality for many retail and fast-food employees who make less than $15 an hour and work fewer than 40 hours a week.


Lisa Pietro, second from right, with other Walmart employees who spoke at the OUR Walmart event. (Photo: Courtesy of OUR Walmart)

According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, Walmart’s current pay rate for associates of approximately $10 an hour does not cover the basic needs — food, health insurance, housing, transportation, clothing, and childcare — of a single adult in any state in the country, even for those who are working full time.

Not only do most Walmart employees not work full time, but the recent wage increase to $10 an hour implemented by the retailer does not kick in until an associate has been employed for at least six months. Because of the high turnover rate and difficult work conditions at Walmart, most employees will not last at the company long enough to see that rate.

Walmart is the biggest employer of women workers, black workers, and LGBT workers in the country — meaning that all these demographics desperately need Walmart to change to guarantee that their basic needs are met so they may continue to be healthy and thus employed.

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“Research clearly shows that people with low incomes have worse health outcomes than those with higher incomes,” says David Madland, managing director of economic policy and director of the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress and the author of Hollowed Out: Why the Economy Doesn’t Work Without a Strong Middle Class.

He points to factors ranging from the stress of not having enough money to make ends meet, to not being able to afford healthy foods, to not being able to live in safe and healthy neighborhoods as contributing to adverse health outcomes for low-wage hourly workers. “People seem to forget that a living wage isn’t about being able to buy material things to have a better material life,” he says. “It’s about having better implications for a person’s health and future.”

Which is why, Madland says, he believes that the public tends to support workers, like those behind the OUR Walmart movement. “The economy is not working for most people. Corporate profits are at a record high — corporations should and can share those gains with the workers who make the profits.”

At Thursday’s kickoff, another Walmart associate, Jasmine Dixon of Denver, shared her story of trying to seek accommodations after becoming pregnant with her second child. While her doctor recommended she be on bed rest, “I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my child, how I was going to pay for the son I already had.”

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With her supervisor unwilling and unable to make any accommodations for a less physically intensive job for Dixon, she eventually had to leave her job. And after she had her baby, she remained out of work for longer than she would have liked when her son was hospitalized for health issues.

“It’s within reason with many jobs that you can adjust things so people can still be productive and still help the bottom line and still be accommodating of people’s basic physical needs,” Madland notes. He explains that in instances of pregnancy, accommodations may often be as simple as providing an employee with a small chair to keep her off her feet or ensuring that she is responsible only for lower shelves and lightweight goods in regards to stocking responsibilities.

Dixon went to Walmart to see if there were any new employment opportunities available; any way, she insists, to allow her to earn an income and continue to take care of her children. Eventually, she was rehired at another store — but for less pay than she had been making before she was forced to leave because of her pregnancy.

“As a public policy matter, flexible schedules and accommodations are important — but workers especially need paid time off and paid leave to take care of a child when they are born,” Madland says. “Unfortunately, right now we have unpaid leave for too few people. Every other advanced society provides paid leave for mothers after giving birth.”

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And it’s important for Americans — and American corporations — to understand that addressing the basic needs of those such as the Walmart associates is critical for the economy, both present and future.

On why a higher minimum wage and guaranteed full-time work for those who want it helps the bottom line, Madland explains that “you get greater productivity out of a worker when their job is better and wages are higher. They stay on the job longer and gain more skills that that particular job needs.”

Also important, he explains, is that higher wages reduce turnover: Simply put, employees leave very quickly when in a low-paying job. One of the highest costs a business incurs is dealing with turnover rate and having to spend time and resources training new employees.

Last, Madland notes, “When you put more money in pockets of workers, they are able to spend that money, and that creates demand in the economy. So businesses then have more customers. It’s a virtuous cycle. When you treat humans better, you get more out of them as well.”

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