NEW YORK » Why wait on Washington when there’s Walmart?
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer and the biggest private employer in the U.S. with 1.4 million workers here, said Tuesday that it is rolling out a three-part plan to help jump-start the sluggish U.S. economy.
The plan includes hiring more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years, spending $50 billion to buy more American-made merchandise in the next 10 years and helping its part-time workers move into full-time positions.
The move comes as Walmart tries to bolster its image amid widespread criticism. The company is faulted for its low-paying jobs and buying habits. Recently, Walmart has faced allegations that it made bribes in Mexico. After a deadly fire at a Bangladeshi factory that supplies its clothes, the company has been called on to better oversee worker safety on the part of its suppliers.
Walmart said its initiatives are unrelated to those events, but rather are meant to highlight that companies don’t have to wait for lawmakers in Washington to fix the economy.
"We’ve developed a national paralysis that’s driven by all of us waiting for someone else to do something," Bill Simon, president and CEO of Walmart’s U.S. business, said Tuesday at an annual retail industry convention in New York. "The beauty of the private sector is that we don’t have to win an election, convince Congress or pass a bill to do what we think is right. We can simply move forward, doing what we know is right."
Any changes that Walmart makes to its hiring and buying practices garner lots of attention because of the company’s massive size. Indeed, with $444 billion in annual revenue, if Walmart were a country, it would rank among the largest economies in the world. But critics say the changes amount to a drop in the bucket for the behemoth, and they question whether Walmart’s initiatives will have a major impact on the U.S. economy.
"America’s largest retailers play an important role in our nation’s economy and in the well-being of millions of lives," said Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union. "Retailers like Walmart could provide the nation with a much-needed economic boost by paying higher wages and providing stable scheduling — while still remaining profitable and continuing to offer low prices."
The centerpiece of Walmart’s plan is a pledge to hire veterans, many of whom have had a particularly difficult time finding work after coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq. The unemployment rate for veterans who served in Iraq or Afghanistan stood at 10.8 percent in December, compared with the overall unemployment rate of 7.8 percent.
Walmart said it plans to hire every veteran who wants a job and has been honorably discharged in the first 12 months off active duty. The program, which will start on Memorial Day, will include jobs mostly in Walmart’s stores or in its Sam’s Club locations.
Dave Tovar, a Walmart spokesman, said Walmart hasn’t worked out the details, but it will "match up the veterans’ experience and qualifications." Simon, who served in the Navy, said that veterans have "a record of performance under pressure" and that "they’re quick learners."