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Lawmakers Pressure Walmart to Boost Worker Wages

Sen. Bernie Sanders' 'Stop WALMART Act' would prohibit stock buybacks for companies that don't meet proposed wage guidelines
Photograph by WGB Staff

Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose advocacy for higher minimum wages prompted Amazon to take action earlier this year, is now turning a direct aim at Walmart.

The Vermont senator on Nov. 15 introduced a bill called the Stop WALMART Act, or Stop Welfare for Any Large Monopoly Amassing Revenue From Taxpayers, that proposes to prohibit large companies from buying back their own stock unless they raised minimum worker wages to at least $15 per hour, met a proposed standard for sick leave, and capped pay for top executives at no more than 150 times median average salary.

The bill is a shot at Walmart not unlike Sanders’ previous Stop BEZOS (Bad Employers by Zeroing Out Subsidies) Act, named after Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. That bill, introduced in September, proposed a tax on corporations equal to the amount of federal assistance benefits its workers received.

Neither bill is expected to gain traction in the Republican-led Senate but attending publicity around the BEZOS bill was said to be a factor when Amazon announced a sweeping hourly wage hike in early October. Bezos in a statement announcing the new rates acknowledged the company “listened to our critics.”

Walmart instituted wage hikes as a foundation of its U.S. turnaround in 2015, and earlier this year, raised its minimum wage to $11 per hour. The company has also been outspoken about efforts to improve career paths, reduce turnover and introduce new benefits such as affordable college education, but it hasn’t entirely escaped the scrutiny of its critics.

“We have increased our starting wages by more than 50% in the last three years and currently have an average hourly total compensation of more than $17.50 an hour,” a company spokesman told WGB in an email. “At the same time, we’ve also added new benefits like paid time off, advanced job training, paid family leave and college for $1 a day. In addition, our associates continue to earn quarterly cash bonusesmore than $625 million last year alone. We have been very deliberate about our job offerings, and we will continue listening to our people and investing in the training, benefits and wages that they tell us are important.”

Sanders’ bill, co-introduced with U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (R-Calif.) calls attention to Walmart’s announcement last year of a $20 billion, two-year stock buyback plan, contrasting that to the estimated $4.8 billion a $15 minimum wage would cost the company annually. The buyback, the lawmakers said, would serve to further enrich the descendants and family of founder Sam Walton, who control about half of Walmart stock.

“Walmart has refused to pay its workers a living wage, resulting in costs for taxpayers of $6.2 billion for basic necessities for survival, food stamps and housing assistance,” Khanna said in a statement. “If Walmart can find $20 billion for stock buybacks to further enrich the Waltons, it can find the money to raise the pay of its workers to a living wage.  It’s time to put workers over wealthy corporation—across our nation, one company at a time.”

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