By Marina Streznewski
The Wal-Mart Foundation during the summer announced two grants, totaling $3 million, for various job training programs. While a worthy gesture, many community activists say the efforts don’t go far enough in ensuring fair wages to help District residents move out of poverty into self sufficiency.
One of Wal-Mart’s grants would support creation of a Retail Academy at the Community College of the District of Columbia; the other, distributed through the Community Foundation of the National Capital Region, would support job training and placement by community-based organizations.
Wal-Mart is planning to open four stores in Washington, one each in Wards 4, 5, 6 and 7. Together, the company asserts, these stores will provide 1,000 construction jobs and 1,200 retail positions.
Job training and new jobs sound like an excellent prescription for addressing our city’s 11.1 percent unemployment rate.
So why are so many local activists and residents concerned?
We question Wal-Mart’s claims regarding both the number and the quality of jobs. We are concerned about Wal-Mart’s impact on traffic, on the environment and on the viability of small businesses. And we question Wal-Mart’s reluctance to sign a binding community benefits agreement.
Wal-Mart claims that each of its stores will create 300 jobs. But the Laurel superstore only employs 250 people in total. That store is 250,000 square feet and is open 24 hours a day. In contrast, the largest District store will only be 120,000 square feet — and not all of the stores will operate around the clock. We do not understand how a smaller store operating fewer hours can employ more people.
We are concerned about job quality as well. Wal-Mart is only required to pay the District’s minimum wage, currently $8.25 per hour. The company says it will pay competitive wages, but does not specify what competitive means. Many workers in suburban stores, even after several years with Wal-Mart, make less than the $12.50, the current living wage as defined by D.C. law. Low-wage jobs do not help workers, especially those with families, move out of poverty to become contributors to the District’s tax base and economy.
The community benefits agreement proposed by the Living Wages Healthy Communities coalition ensures that Wal-Mart will comply with D.C.’s Living Wage law, but jobs and wages are only some of the issues it addresses. The agreement includes requirements regarding traffic, the environment and safety, all of which Wal-Mart says it meets. We do not understand why the company will not put these promises in writing.
Wal-Mart can be a force to improve wages and benefits for workers in the District. According to the Center for Labor Research and Education at the University of California Berkeley, if Wal-Mart were to increase workers’ pay to $12 an hour, and pass 100 percent of the wage increase on to consumers, the average impact on a Wal-Mart shopper would be $0.46 per shopping trip, or $12.49 per year.
Philanthropy is only one aspect of good corporate citizenship. Because of its size, Wal-Mart’s actions have a dramatic impact, not only on the company’s own employees, suppliers and shareholders, but on the local and national economies in which they operate as well. By paying fair wages and respecting the needs of neighborhoods, Wal-Mart can make its philanthropy even more effective.
Marina Streznewski is the executive director of the D.C. Jobs Council, a coalition of job training and adult literacy providers that is part of the Living Wages Healthy Communities coalition.
This was originally published as a commentary in the Capital Business section of the October 2, 2011 Washington Post. The original may be viewed here.