New York - Wal-Mart Stores’ decision to extend health-care benefits to workers’ same-sex partners removes one of the biggest holdouts and adds pressure on other resistant companies to follow suit.
“You can go to your board, and all of a sudden you’re not swimming against the stream as much as you were yesterday,” said Wallace Hopp, the associate dean of faculty and research at the University of Michigan’s Stephen M Ross School of Business.
Walmart, the largest US private employer and a frequent target of labour rights groups, described the change on Tuesday mainly as a path to a consistent policy as some states alter the definition of marriage.
Even so, the switch after years of opposition may help tip the balance at companies such as trucker YRC Worldwide, which is considering partner benefits for 2014, or Exxon Mobil, one of the biggest firms left without such coverage.
“They’re so big that everything they do sets an example,” Hopp said of Walmart.
The retailer, founded by the late Sam Walton in 1962 and known for policies such as banning explicit lyrics in CDs it sells, serves about two-thirds of Americans monthly.
Kelly Walls, the senior vice-president of human resources at YRC, said the Kansas-based company was “always re-evaluating its benefits based on the needs and changing demographics of our employees”.
The number of Fortune 500 companies offering health-care benefits to same-sex partners has surged in a decade, to about 62 percent last year from 34 percent in 2002, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
Exxon, with about 76 900 employees, received the lowest score among the 20 largest companies on the campaign’s 2013 Corporate Equality Index examining policies for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) workers.
On its website, Exxon says it offers coverage for “legally recognised spousal relationships” in countries where it operates. In the US, “we follow the federal definition of spousal relationships”, Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said.
Full-time workers’ spouses and domestic partners would be eligible for coverage in medical, dental, vision, life, critical illness and accident plans, Walmart said in a postcard being mailed to employees this week.
“We thought it was important to develop a single definition for all Walmart associates in the US to give them consistency in the various markets we operate in across the country,” Randy Hargrove, a spokesman for the retailer, said.
Walmart might have held out for so long in part because the size of its employee base made it costly to expand benefits, said Molly Iacovoni, a senior vice-president who works on employee benefits issues at Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting group.
Hargrove said the retailer had 1.3 million full and part-time US employees. More than half participated in health-care plans, and a total of 1.1 million employees and family members were covered by the plans.
Just last week, United Parcel Service said it would drop health insurance coverage for about 15 000 working spouses of white-collar employees to curtail rising costs.
Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign, said Walmart’s decision was “a cultural signal that equality for LGBT people is the simplest of mainstream values”.
Lucas Handy, 22, an openly gay former employee at a Walmart in Fort Dodge, Iowa, had mixed thoughts on the change.
“It’s wonderful… if the company keeps its promise on this issue,” Handy, a member of the union-backed OUR Walmart group that is seeking to improve working conditions, said. “But the truth is a lot of associates who work at Walmart don’t have health care because they can’t afford it.”
Wal-Mart fell 0.2 percent on Tuesday in New York.
Hopp at Michigan University called the decision a “reflection of how the country is changing”. - Bloomberg