US: For One Clerk, Fight for Wal-Mart Bill Is Personal

At lunchtime, in the break room of the Wal-Mart store in Laurel, the television delivered the news from the opening day of the General Assembly:

Maryland lawmakers would attempt this week to override the governor's veto of a bill aimed at forcing Wal-Mart to offer more affordable health care coverage to its 17,000 workers in the state.

"You better listen," Cynthia Murray told her co-workers gathered there. When her shift ended at 3 p.m., she turned her back on the store and headed through the rain to Annapolis.

There, the 49-year-old sales associate was embraced by lawmakers and union leaders. Still wearing her blue apron, with its "How May I Help You?" slogan, Murray offered a rare statement in this debate that has drawn national attention and spurred an advertising and lobbying frenzy.

Hers was the voice of someone who might actually be affected.

"I've worked at Wal-Mart for more than five years, and I still can't afford their health care. I know many of my co-workers can't afford it either."

Murray said the $200-a-month plan she was offered to cover her and her husband would cost about a quarter of her monthly pay. So she goes without coverage and prays that she and her family will stay well. She said she might face repercussions for speaking out, but that is beyond her control.

"God puts us in the right place for the right reasons. That is why I am here."

Wal-Mart officials countered that the company recently expanded its range of heath care plans -- including one that provides benefits for as little as $23 a month to a single worker.

"We provide insurance to over 1 million Americans," said Nate Hurst, a spokesman for the giant retailer. "Clearly this bill is about politics -- bad politics."

The debate over the Fair Share Health Care Fund Act, commonly known as the Wal-Mart bill, has dominated politics in the run-up to the General Assembly, with the retailer arguing that Democrats have unfairly singled out one company and union leaders arguing that workers deserve better treatment.

Murray's words were a rallying cry to the bill's supporters, who could vote as early as today on whether to overturn last year's veto by Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The legislation, versions of which are being considered by more than 30 states, would require private employers with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 percent of payroll on health benefits or make a contribution to the state's Medicaid program. Wal-Mart, with 53 stores and nearly 17,000 workers in Maryland, is the only large employer that does not meet that requirement.

Union activists and some lawmakers contend that the range of benefits offered by Wal-Mart is so expensive relative to workers' salaries, and eligibility is so restrictive, that many turn to Medicaid, the publicly funded health care program for the poor, for their coverage, and to a state health insurance program for children.

That leaves the state to pick up the costs, said House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel).

Busch could not provide figures for how many of Maryland's Wal-Mart workers are on Medicaid, and the AFL-CIO sued unsuccessfully to get that information, said Naomi Walker, the labor organization's director of state legislative programs.

But in 18 states that have released the information, Wal-Mart was among the top three employers that shifted workers into Medicaid, the children's insurance program and other state aid, Walker said.

A survey by Georgia officials found that more than 10,000 children of Wal-Mart employees were enrolled in the state's health insurance program for children at a cost of nearly $10 million annually.

Some of Maryland's Wal-Mart workers make so little that they qualify for such poverty programs.

The average wage for full-time sales associates in Maryland is $9.97 an hour, and full-time workers at Wal-Mart put in from 34 to 40 hours a week, Hurst said. At that rate, an employee working 40 hours a week earns $19,142 a year, an income below the $19,350 federal poverty level for a family of four.

Wal-Mart officials have said their company is living up to its responsibilities to provide adequate health care coverage to workers.

Under recently expanded benefits, Maryland workers now have a choice of several plans, including a "value plan" that costs $23 a month for a single worker, $37 a month for a parent and children, and $65 a month for two parents and children, said corporate spokesman Dan Fogleman.

That gives each family member three doctors' visits and three generic prescriptions before being subject to an annual deductible of $1,000. Full-time workers are eligible for enrollment after 180 days. Part-timers can enroll after two years.

"This plan would have been available" to Murray, Fogleman said. He said the company does not steer workers to Medicaid or other state programs.

For her part, Murray said Wal-Mart did not offer her any health insurance option other than the one she could not afford. She said she did not want to turn to Medicaid for help. "I probably do qualify, but that is not the way to go."

AMP Section Name:Retail & Mega-Stores
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