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Judy Stadtman and Arnie Alpert: Walmart example shows why we need higher minimum wage

Published: 1/29/2019 12:10:14 AM

With New Hampshire holding the dubious distinction of being the only New England state with a minimum wage stuck at the $7.25 an hour federal level and debate on the issue about to begin in the Legislature, today is an interesting day for Walmart to be hosting a legislative lunch in the State House cafeteria.

The Arkansas-based retail giant is the nation’s biggest boss, with more than 1.5 million workers nationwide. It’s also New Hampshire’s largest private employer, with some 7,500 Granite State employees. The company has a well-deserved reputation for keeping wages low and open hostility to giving its employees more power to demand better wages and working conditions through union organizing.

Due to its dominance in the global retail market, Walmart drives industry standards that have a significant impact on local economies, suppliers and working families beyond its own workforce. For example, when Walmart recently raised its starting wage from $9 to $11 an hour, competitors at Target and Amazon quickly announced plans to up their starting wage to $15 an hour.

Readers might conclude that if New Hampshire’s largest employer, which touts a business model based on paying the lowest wages the market can withstand, can raise its minimum wage to $11 an hour, the state should at least be able to match it.

There is just one big problem: $11 an hour is not a livable wage in New Hampshire, not even for a lone adult who works full time and has no dependents. According to calculations by economists at MIT, for a family of four with two children and two adults working full-time, both earners would need to take home a minimum of $16.09 an hour just to make ends meet. For single earner families with two children, a full-time job paying $11 hour is just barely enough to rise above the federal poverty line. And while Walmart recently announced a paid family leave program for its full-time employees, industry watchdogs estimate that up to one-half of all Walmart workers work irregular, part-time hours and do not qualify for the company’s paid leave or health care benefits.

The Roosevelt Institute, a nonpartisan think tank that studies the causes of income inequality, recently estimated that if Walmart had re-directed $10 billion of the company’s financial windfall from 2017 tax cuts to raising wages, over 1 million members of Walmart’s hourly workforce would be earning more than $16 an hour. Instead, the company authorized $20 billion in a stock buy-back program to increase shareholder wealth. The corporation’s cold-blooded approach to wages and benefits for its hourly workforce does not extend to the executive suite: In 2017, Walmart’s CEO earned 1,188 times as much as the company’s median worker.

While low unemployment is forcing employers, even Walmart, to offer better wages and benefits, New Hampshire’s working families can’t depend on corporate generosity or the “invisible hand” of the free market for retail and service industry jobs to provide adequate wages and enough work hours to meet their basic household needs.

That’s why it’s timely for our lawmakers to review the wages and benefits earned by New Hampshire workers. Let’s make sure 2019 is the year New Hampshire restores a minimum wage and gets it moving upward to at least $15 an hour. That would put us in the same relative pay scale as the other five New England states. And while they’re at it, access to family and medical leave and affordable health care benefits shouldn’t be denied to those who can’t find full time jobs or be limited to those with benevolent bosses.

(Judy Stadtman is board vice chair of the N.H. Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health. Arnie Alpert is co-director of the American Friends Service Committee’s N.H. program.)

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