THE BLOG
06/06/2014 06:53 pm ET Updated Aug 06, 2014

Harry Connick Jr. and The Walmart Economy

An uneven recovery. This is what economists are discussing, but more problematically, it's the reality that too many American families are facing every day.

At the heart of this problem is the growth of low-wage work. NELP's recent report, The Low-Wage Recovery, found that four years into the recovery, low-wage industries continue to dominate job growth. Job losses during the recession were heaviest in mid- and higher-wage industries, while job gains since then have been concentrated in lower-wage industries.

Low wages hurt families and dampen the economy's rebound.

No employer is more responsible for creating and reinforcing the vicious cycle of the low-paying economy than Walmart, which held its annual shareholders meeting today, hosted by Harry Connick Jr. Instead of introducing company executives and Walmart family heirs, the singer should have belted out his hit, "It Had to Be You," highlighting Walmart's role in driving the low-wage economy.

Walmart is a highly profitable corporation, recording between $16 and $17 billion a year in profits. Meanwhile, the majority of Walmart employees--as many as 825,000 working people-- are paid less than $25,000 a year by the retail giant.

What's ironic is that low wages don't just hurt workers, they also hurt Walmart, whose sales have been slumping.

Walmart, however, is uniquely positioned to fix its downward sales by improving jobs and staffing at its stores.

It's well documented that when low-wage workers have money in their pockets, they spend it covering the basics. Well, Walmart need look no further than the hundreds of thousands of employees that it could pay a better wage - so that they could buy more at Walmart stores.

Improving scheduling and staffing would vastly improve the customer service problems that are keeping people from shopping at Walmart. Bloomberg reported that the company is losing $3 billion annually because of stocking problems. And Walmart moms - and dads - have been calling for an end to the economic destruction that Walmart's part time work and erratic scheduling is causing their families.

You don't have to take my word for it.

A new poll of consumers shows that they too want Walmart to change. The majority of shoppers -including those who are loyal Walmart shoppers - agree that "Walmart is a real example of what's wrong with our economy - the CEO is making millions and the workers are making minimum wage with poor benefits."

And Walmart shoppers want the company to change. Two-in-three consumers believe that the company could afford to pay higher wages and better benefits if it chose to.

And it's not just talk. Consumers are putting their money behind their concerns about Walmart's treatment of workers. Among Walmart's most loyal customers-- those who shop there weekly--25% cite poor treatment of workers as a reason why they have been shopping there less.

The same survey of consumers outlines the answer for Walmart. Shoppers say that improved treatment of workers would encourage them to shop at the retailer. Twenty-nine percent of all consumers and 29% of people who rarely or never shop at Walmart say they would shop there more if the company treated its employees better.

As Charmaine Givens-Thomas, Walmart associate and shareholder, said at Friday's shareholder meeting, "Something is wrong when the richest family in America pays hundreds of thousands of workers so little that they cannot survive without public assistance."

There is something wrong with our economy when few enjoy extensive riches and the majority struggle.

Walmart and the Walton Family can play a huge role in turning this economy around. Shareholders, workers, shoppers and Americans who would be their shoppers all agree that improving jobs is central to putting the company on the right track as well. Walmart, it has to be you.

Christine L. Owens is executive director of the National Employment Law Project.