Wal-Mart Takes Heat for Donation Drive for Employees

Reaction to one Wal-Mart store's donation drive for employees in the Washington Post.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. of Bentonville has long taken heat over how it compensates employees, and this week its critics found another line of attack.

You've no doubt heard about this story and photo in Cleveland's Plain Dealer newspaper. According to the story, Wal-Mart employees at a Canton, Ohio, store set out a collection bin in an employee-only area of the store labled, "Please Donate Food Items Here, so Associates in Need Can Enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner."

A Wal-Mart employee took a photo of the bin and sent it to Our Wal-Mart, a union-backed group that's critical of how Wal-Mart treats its workers. A Wal-Mart spokesman told the Plain Dealer that the food drive is proof that employees care about each other.

"It is for associates who have had some hardships come up," he said. "Maybe their spouse lost a job.

"This is part of the company's culture to rally around associates and take care of them when they face extreme hardships," he said.

The story has added to criticism that Wal-Mart still doesn't pay most emloyees enough, which causes those employees to turn to government assistance. The Huffington Post calculates that most Wal-Mart workers make less than $25,000 per year, meaning ...

that Walmart workers end up relying on means other than pay -- like the food drive -- to get by.

One Walmart’s low wages could cost taxpayers $900,000 per year because workers use social safety net programs like food stamps and government-subsidized health care to make ends meet, according to a May study from congressional Democrats.

Wal-Mart's also taking shots from comedians, including Stephen Colbert, in the video at the end of this post.

But the retailer has its defenders, including Cliff Courtney, chief marketing officer at Zimmerman Advertising, who tells Fox Business that he thinks the retailer is being treated unfairly:

“This is another case of no one roots for Goliath,” Courtney says. “No good deed goes unpunished. The fact is they are just trying to do a good thing.” He says the store wasn’t advertising the food drive and not asking customers for contributions, and he expects the hype to short lived.

“Wal-Mart has always stood for the ‘good life for less,’” Courtney says. “They are trying to do something nice, and they have tried to do things like this in the past and they have backfired. This too will pass over.”

The Washington Post's Leadership blog also assessed the situation, and thinks context is key. What if another retailer, say Costco, had been caught doing something similar?

It was only a few months ago that McDonald‘s came under fire for offering personal finance advice to employees that seemed to suggest they would need a second job to make ends meet. Coming on the heels of that brouhaha, the Wal-Mart photo starts to look less like a gesture of help and more like yet another example of a big corporation expecting others to pick up the slack for its low pay. If there were news of a similar food drive at a Costco, say–which is known for offering above-average pay and benefits–it probably wouldn’t register a blip of attention. Context counts, and people will see what they want to see.

Meanwhile, another response comes from Ed Nicholson, who leads efforts against hunger and food insecurity for another Arkansas company, Tyson Foods Inc. of Springdale. Nicholson, while not criticizing or defending Wal-Mart, filed this in a blog post yesterday:

Circumstances place people in need.  Those circumstances can turn on almost anyone, anywhere.

The implication that a “decent” workplace would never have employees with food insecurity is just wrong, and I might suggest dangerous for those with an interest in fighting hunger. Using this particular situation to sling a spear at WalMart does a great disservice to everyone in the hunger movement trying to combat a myriad of misplaced stereotypes about food insecurity.

Let me repeat:  Food insecurity can be present in any workplace.

Take a close look around your own circle; at your own workplace, your friends and family, and in the places you do business. You’ll likely be surprised to find people in real need if you dig deeply enough.

You can read Nicholson's full post here.

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