March 19, 2010 Volume 111 Number 6

Walmart tops list of Oregon businesses with employees receiving public assistance

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Walmart is at the top of a list of Oregon employers whose workers receive food stamps and/or state-subsidized medical coverage.

The Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) agreed to compile such a list in response to concerns raised in 2007 by State Rep. Brad Witt (D-Clatskanie) and other legislators. The data are neither verified nor exhaustive, but DHS said the sample size was robust enough to ensure a large degree of confidence as to who the top 50 employers were that had large numbers of employees receiving public assistance: The list was compiled two years in a row, and almost all the same employers made the top 50 both years.

Walmart, which last year reported an 8.8 percent jump in profit to $14.4 billion on sales of $405 billion, topped the list both years, with 468 Oregon employees getting one or both forms of assistance in 2009, and 875 in 2008.

McDonalds, Taco Bell, Burger King, and Subway were in the top 10 both years, and their competitors weren’t far behind: In all, a dozen restaurant franchises were among the top 50 both years.

Other names near the top of the list included Harry & David, Dollar Tree, and Target, as well as Goodwill and temp agencies like Labor Ready.

Perhaps surprising, perhaps not: Public sector employers were on the list in a number of spots. Oregon’s Home Care Commission was number 2 or 3. And added together, “various school districts,” Oregon State University, and “various departments” of the State of Oregon were in the top 50.

Even some unionized private-sector employers were on the list, including Safeway, where most employees belong to United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555. Rep. Witt, who is also a full-time staff rep at Local 555, said Safeway probably made the top 10 both years because many of its employees are part-time.

That raises the question: What does the list mean? Are these simply large employers that happen to be in low-skill, low-wage industries? Or are they “irresponsible” employers with a “low-road” market strategy that ends up burdening taxpayers? Both, says Witt.

“These reports are an indictment of companies that fail to pay their fair share and provide a full-time work week,” Witt told the Labor Press, “and the end result is that we the taxpayers end up subsidizing their workforce.”

Witt sponsored a bill in the 2007 session to require DHS to track employers whose workers get food stamps or state medical assistance. The bill didn’t pass, but DHS tried to accommodate his search for information by adding a field for “employers” in the intake databases DHS staff fill out when individuals apply for benefits.

As it stands, households qualify for food stamps if they’re at or below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines. So a single person living alone would get food stamps if they earn below $20,035 a year; so would a family of four with income under $40,792. Basically, any full-time worker earning less than $9.63 an hour can get food stamps, and part-time low-wage workers are even more likely to qualify.

Witt sought the information in order to build a case that decent employers are those that pay a living wage and provide health insurance, while those that don’t are a burden to society. Ultimately, the information could bolster arguments for a “pay-or-play” employer mandate to provide health insurance, another idea Witt has pressed for.

The complete reports, including the top-50 lists, are available here and here.

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