Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Prices so low, even employees can afford them

Wal-Mart: savior or scourge? (lots of jobs and low, low prices for all, but horrible labor practices). Not surprisingly I tend to lean toward the Satanic view, mostly because of the labor issue but also because they’re a leader in the fight to homogenize America. But my antipathy on the labor front got a boost from this article (CNN re-reporting the New York Times), which notes that like many companies, Wal-Mart is struggling with rapidly increasing health-benefit and pension costs. However, it’s taken a somewhat novel approach to the problem: don’t hire anyone sick, old or even mildly infirm. Or anyone who might get old. Or anyone who might get sick. Or anyone who might put up with working there long enough to earn full health benefits or a pension. One proposed tactic is to have "all jobs to include some physical activity (e.g., all cashiers do some cart-gathering)." OK, so for example:

“Flo, I need you to take a break from the register and bring carts in from the parking lot.”

“But Mr. Burns, the parking lot is 13 acres -- and for some reason there seem to be several cinder blocks in every cart!”

“Sorry, honey, it’s part of your job description.”

“Um, well, the parking lot is also pitch-dark and covered with ice. Can I at least borrow a Wal-Mart poncho and some nonslip boots?”

“Jeez, what do you think this is, a country club?! I got plenty of job applications sitting on my desk from people who’d love to have your cushy job. Now GET MOVING!”

Incidentally, Wal-Mart is also concerned, according to the article, because “workers with seven years' seniority earn more than workers with one year's seniority, but are no more productive” (read: fear of those with the experience to know how the company really works, or ought to work).

Fortunately for the managers, they don’t have to deal directly with the employee’s family members -- though Susan Chambers (executive VP for benefits) acknowledges that 46 percent of the children of Wal-Mart's 1.33 million U.S. employees are uninsured or on Medicaid. Also on the table: proposing that employees pay more for their spouses' health insurance, cutting the company's 401(k) contributions and cutting company-paid life insurance policies.

And the winner of this year’s award for cynical-yet-transparent-PR-sliminess goes to... Wal-Mart's own Susan Chambers, who said she was focusing not on cutting costs, but on serving employees better by giving them more choices on their benefits.

In the interest of being fair and balanced, here's an article in Business Week aboutseveral studies analyzing the impact of Wal-Mart's business practices. You make the call.

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