There's more to the story than meets the eye when Walmart says it is now going to offer the same health care benefits to same-sex couples that it offers to straight employees. I should know: I'm a Walmart worker from Iowa, and I'm gay. Like many Americans, I like the symbolic value of the nation's largest employer pledging that it won't continue to discriminate when it comes to health benefits, but here's the bad news: In the real world a majority of Walmart workers -- gay and straight alike -- still won't have affordable health coverage or living wages.
I started working at the Walmart in my hometown of Fort Dodge, Iowa, like my father and cousin before me. In a small, rural community there aren't a lot of other jobs around. The company's TV ads give the public the impression that Walmart employees are treated like one big, happy family, but inside the store I saw that LGBT staff members, including me, were bullied and targeted for unfair treatment. And that wasn't all: Here was a company that made $16 billion in profit last year (four of the Walton heirs are among the richest 10 Americans listed by Forbes magazine, with a combined wealth equal to the total net worth of nearly half of all U.S. families put together), yet most Walmart workers are paid a poverty wage of between $8 and $10 an hour. In my case it was $8.95.
As for the health care benefits that Walmart claims that same-sex couples will enjoy, I couldn't afford the company's health benefits when I was a full-time employee, and when I was cut back to part-time I didn't qualify at all. And I was not alone: Walmart has publicly admitted that about half its employees are not covered under the company's health plan, and since it won't disclose actual numbers, the real percentage may actually be lower. And beginning with the 2012 enrollment period, Walmart took away access to health care coverage for part-time employees and raised premiums for full-time employees by as much as 162 percent. Walmart's 2012 Associate Benefits Book, which was distributed to me and all other employees, provided contact information for assistance programs like Medicaid in each state for those who might be eligible for the company's insurance plan but are "unable to afford the premiums."
It's no wonder that in 21 of 23 states that have disclosed information, Walmart has the largest number of employees on the public rolls of any employer. In fact, a congressional report earlier this year calculated that taxpayers have to subsidize Walmart by providing food stamps, health care, and other public assistance for employees to the tune of nearly $1 million a year per store -- and there are 4,000 Walmart stores! Multiply that out and you'll get an idea of how big the total public subsidy is.
It was this kind of treatment that led me to search online for information and help, and that's how I found OUR Walmart, a group formed two years ago by Walmart associates to speak out for fairness and respect. In early June I joined Walmart workers from across the U.S. in a caravan trip across the country called "Ride for Respect" and the first prolonged strike in the company's history. Our trip ended up with protests at Walmart's headquarters in Arkansas during the week of the annual shareholders meeting. I returned to work but soon was fired for speaking out. In all, about 20 of us have been illegally fired and another 60 disciplined.
We've begun a new round of protests in more than a dozen cities. Our goals are modest and reasonable: We want Walmart to establish a wage floor of at least $25,000 per year for full-time work, and to commit to respecting workers' rights. Raising pay and providing real health care benefits is something that Walmart could easily afford, and it would benefit the economy as a whole by giving workers the buying power to support other jobs and businesses in our communities. An announcement that all Walmart workers -- gay and straight -- will make a living wage and have access to affordable health care would truly be cause for celebration. Until then, all we're getting from the biggest company in America is deceptive news releases and hollow headlines.