The photo up above is from a Walmart in Canton Ohio where, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, management has apparently decided to run a Thanksgiving food drive for the store's own employees. One might be tempted to take this as a sign that the country's largest retailer (and grocer) doesn't pay their workers enough to put a holiday meal on the table. The company, however, would prefer you think of it as proof that Walmart employees are a tight-knit bunch:
Kory Lundberg, a Walmart spokesman, said the food drive is proof that employees care about each other.
"It is for associates who have had some hardships come up," he said. "Maybe their spouse lost a job.
"This is part of the company's culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships," he said.
And fair enough. Whoever set up those orange and purple bins clearly had their heart in the right place, and I don't want to demean anyone's effort to help their fellow employees. But that doesn't change the big picture: an awful lot of Walmart workers live life on the financial edge.
Now, it's tempting to write this off as just another instance where a small gesture of goodwill by a profitable multinational corporation towards its employees accidentally underscores how little it pays them. But as the Plain Dealer notes, Walmart actually runs something that sort of looks like this food drive, writ large:
Lundberg said holding the food drive at the Canton Walmart was decided at the store level. However, the effort could be considered in line with what happens company-wide. The Associates in Critical Need Trust is funded by Walmart employee contributions that can be given through payroll deduction. He said employees can receive grants up to $1,500 to address hardships they may encounter, including homelessness, serious medical illnesses and major repairs to primary vehicles. Since 2001, grants totaling $80 million have been made.
Again, it's nice that Walmart has set up a charity so that its workers can lend a hand to their homeless colleagues. It'd be nicer if the company paid enough to make sure that wasn't a concern in the first place.
A quick note: The photo in this piece, which the Plain Dealer initially published, is credited to OUR Walmart, a labor group that's organized strikes against the retailer. That said, the company clearly isn't arguing about its authenticity or context.
UPDATE, November 18: Via Twitter, reader Billy Griffin notes that other companies also run relief funds for their employees, and argues we shouldn't interpret the fact that Walmart operates an in-house charity as independent evidence that its workers are underpaid. Lowes, for instance, also has a fund that gives employees up to $1,500 to help them through personal emergencies like major illnesses. At the same time, analysts believe the chain pays its sales associates significantly more than Walmart, or most other big box stores for that matter. I think Billy makes a good point, so I want to highlight it. That said, I still think believe there is something a bit unseemly about a company whose name has become synonymous with low wages prodding its employees to help each other out in case one of them needs to, say, make car repairs. I'd also guess—though I can't say for sure—it's a sign that, on some level, Walmart understands that many of its workers will be prone to financial emergencies.