Bill in Works To Force Wal-Mart To Give Employees Health Benefits
BY JILL GARDINER - Staff Reporter of the Sun
January 23, 2006
New York State is about to become involved in the effort to force Wal-Mart and other big box stores to contribute to their employees' health care tab.
Less than two weeks after Maryland made history by passing a law with the same mission - and on the heels of a similar bill approved by the New York City Council - Democrats in the state Senate plan to introduce a version of such legislation. Democrats passed the Maryland and council measures over Republican vetoes.
The latest proposal is part of an employer-paid health care effort that is just beginning to heat up. Labor leaders have aggressively lobbied elected officials across the country to take on the cause and many are expecting more states to sign on with their own versions.
The New York State proposal would require Wal-Mart and other stores with 500 or more employees and at least 10,000 square feet of space to pay $3 an hour for each employee. With Republicans in control of the state Senate, however, passing the measure could be an uphill battle.
During a news conference at City Hall yesterday, state Senator Diane Savino, a former union leader who will be the main sponsor of the bill, said it is unfair for Wal-Mart to exploit taxpayer dollars by denying many of its employees health insurance and driving them to Medicaid.
"No employee of a multibillion dollar company should be forced to go without medical care nor should they be forced to resort to Medicaid," she said. "Providing health benefits is not going to make a dent in Wal-Mart's fortunes."
Opponents have a different take. They paint the legislation as anti-business and the product of special interest groups like unions.
The director of legislative affairs at the Employment Policies Institute, Michael Flynn, called the legislation a "shot gun approach" that would fail to significantly increase the number of people with medical coverage and would saddle businesses with financial burdens, making it more difficult for them to operate and provide low cost products.
"When you mandate coverage, you're driving up labor costs, which leads to reduced wages, reduced hours, or loss of jobs," Mr. Flynn said during a telephone interview late last week.
The Washington, D.C.-based institute is releasing a series of studies that show that requiring employers to pay for health insurance is an ineffective approach to closing the insurance gap. Wal-Mart officials could not be reached yesterday, but in the past have denied that they encourage employees to sign up for Medicaid and said that they do provide many of their employees with insurance.
When Mayor Bloomberg vetoed the City Council's legislation late last year, he said he wanted to increase the number of people with health insurance but that mandating it in this fashion violates federal law and is the wrong approach.
Yesterday, state Senator Eric Schneiderman said the Senate bill was designed to withstand legal challenges regarding the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, which Mr. Bloomberg was referring to.
"We are confident that beginning today this movement will grow," Mr. Schneiderman said.
The elected officials and labor leaders at yesterday's event took a few cues from Maryland politicians, who depicted the issue as an abuse of taxpayer money. The president of the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union, Stuart Applebaum, a top leader at the United Food and Commercial Workers, Patrick Purcell, and the executive director of the Working Families Party, Dan Cantor, said Wal-Mart needs to change its ways.
With both sides gearing up their campaigns to tackle the issue, New York State could be the next stage for a national debate