Walmart workers ‘feared for their lives’ due to Covid, executives told

The Rev William Barber urges board to create worker advisory council at company’s annual shareholder meeting

Last modified on Wed 2 Jun 2021 13.49 EDT

Social justice campaigner the Rev William Barber II told Walmart executives its workers “feared for their lives every day” during the Covid-19 pandemic and urged the board to create a worker advisory council at the company’s annual shareholder’s meeting on Wednesday.

Shareholders at the virtual meeting voted on issues including executive compensation and on whether to create a pandemic workforce advisory council, which would give workers at the country’s largest private employer a voice in corporate decisions. Shareholders voted against creating the council, according to preliminary vote results announced in the meeting.

“There are hundreds of your workers who are not alive today, because of this vicious coronavirus that was allowed to spread through your stores, largely in secret, as your workers feared for their lives every day,” Barber said, while presenting the proposal in a pre-recorded statement.

Barber, president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, told shareholders that many workers contracted Covid-19 and spread it to family “all because they were too poor to stay home from work, too afraid of retaliation to get the time off, too beaten down by this system to be truly supported by this company and by our government in this dire hour for our nation”.

The public health not-for-profit Human Impact Partners found in April that more than 7,500 Covid-19 infections and 133 deaths could have been prevented if Walmart offered employees two weeks of paid sick leave.

In response to the pandemic, Walmart instituted an emergency leave policy in March 2020 that allows employees to take two weeks of paid leave for mandated quarantines or if they test positive for Covid-19. Workers can also take unpaid leave if they want to quarantine for Covid-19 concerns and could be eligible for up to three days of pay if they can’t work because of an adverse reaction to the Covid-19 vaccine, according to company policy.

The US does not require companies to provide paid sick leave and outside of the pandemic, Walmart’s equivalent of sick time is its “protected PTO” (paid time off), which is time people can use without being penalized in their attendance record. Employees in most states can earn up to 48 hours – about six days – of “protected PTO” each year.

The paid leave policy, as well as the company’s starting minimum wage of $11, stands in stark contrast to its executives’ multimillion-dollar compensation.

In the fiscal year that ended on 1 February, Walmart’s top six executives earned $79.93m in combined salaries and benefits, according to the company. The retailer’s revenue grew by $35.2bn last year.

Walmart’s CEO, Doug McMillon, was paid $22.6m in the last fiscal year, 1,078 times more than the median Walmart employee salary of $20,942. He has said the federal minimum wage of $7.25 should be higher, but he doesn’t support raising it to $15 because of cost of living differences across the country.

Walmart’s starting wage is $11 an hour though some of its main competitors, including Amazon and Target, start employees at $15 an hour. Walmart raised wages for 425,000 employees to $15 an hour in February.

“Our associates are an inspiration,” McMillon said at the meeting.

Barber spoke at the meeting in support of the worker advisory council proposal introduced by Cynthia Murray, who has worked as a Walmart associate in Maryland for 20 years. Walmart unsuccessfully attempted to block the proposal from the meeting and advised shareholders to vote against it.

Murray is a leader of the United for Respect, a workers’ rights not-for-profit, and testified before Congress in February about the company’s low wages and sick leave policy.

She said in a statement supporting the proposal: “Even before Covid-19, Walmart failed to recognize the value of empowering associates, with concerns raised about understaffing, the sick leave policy, and ineligibility for health benefits; the pandemic has shown the folly of that approach.”

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