US: Wal-Mart critics put workers in spotlight over health care

One of Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s most vociferous critics launched a campaign Tuesday with 17 current and former Wal-Mart workers speaking out against health insurance coverage they claim is too expensive, leaving them uninsured or on taxpayer funded programs.

News conferences by the workers in eight states Tuesday and four more scheduled later this week and next are timed to help a union-backed drive for legislation that would require the world's largest retailer to pay a fixed percentage for health coverage of its 1.3 million U.S. workers., a group backed by the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said 10 speakers were current Wal-Mart employees and seven more had quit or been fired.

In workers' stories collected ahead of the news conferences by the group, several current employees talk about being unable to afford premiums and deductibles even after working for Wal-Mart for several years.

Dana Razaie has been a stocker at a Wal-Mart in Fridley, Minn., for about five years. She said she depends on state-funded MinnesotaCare for health coverage for herself and three children.

According to WakeUpWalMart, Razaie's wage of $11.29 an hour at Wal-Mart and a second job at a gas station leave her with take-home pay of less than $20,000 a year. Razaie says she cannot afford Wal-Mart's health insurance plan with $300 monthly premiums and deductibles reaching over $1,000.

Wal-Mart said it is already taking steps to make insurance more affordable. It offers a new plan this year that costs $23 a month and covers three doctor visits and three prescriptions before a deductible of $1,000 kicks in.

It also launched an $11 plan in a limited number of locations but will widen that to be available to half of all employees later this year, as well as shortening the eligibility period for part-timers and adding coverage of their children.

"Our jobs give people the opportunity to move from public health programs to private health coverage," company spokeswoman Sarah Clark said.

Clark said 7 percent of new employees are on Medicaid when they join Wal-Mart, a percentage that drops to 3 percent within two years, and that Wal-Mart created 125,000 jobs last year.

Wal-Mart also offered testimonials from six current employees who praised the company's coverage, including a woman who was a divorced mother of three when she joined in 1998 in Hermiston, Ore.

"Within the first year with Wal-Mart, I no longer needed food stamps and I had medical, dental, and life insurance through Wal-Mart," wrote Heather Baumgartner, now a logistics manager in Grantsville, Utah.

Razaie was due to appear at a news conference Tuesday in Minneapolis. Other workers were to speak Tuesday in Boston; Dallas; Lansing, Mich.; Orlando, Fla.; Philadelphia; Tulsa, Okla.; and Syracuse, N.Y. The other five events over the next two weeks are to be held in Connecticut, Kentucky, Maine, New York and Tennessee.

The campaign comes as unions are pushing for bills in several states similar to one passed in a veto override by the Maryland legislature in January.

Maryland's "Fair Share" bill, which has been challenged in federal courts by a national retail association, requires large employers to spend at least 8 percent of payroll in a state for employee health coverage or pay the difference into state coffers for publicly funded programs for the uninsured.

Proponents say similar bills filed in at least 22 states would stop taxpayer subsidies for profitable companies that skimp on health coverage, leaving workers to sign up with state programs.

Opponents including Wal-Mart and many business groups say the bills are bad policy aimed at punishing Wal-Mart and will do nothing to solve the problem of the working uninsured and rising health care costs.

Labor unions are pushing the bills in about 30 states. Maryland is the only state to have passed it, and since then similar bills have been rejected, stalled or withdrawn in at least eight states, according to data from the National Conference of State Legislatures and Wal-Mart.

AMP Section Name:Labor
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