New research conducted for Progress Illinois reinforces the argument that Walmart employees are considerably worse off financially than workers at comparable big box stores.
Since Mayor Daley vetoed a big box living wage ordinance in 2006, Walmart and its supporters in Chicago have consistently argued that the mega-retailer offers local employees competitive wages and benefits. With a Walmart-anchored development project in the city's 9th Ward now gaining some traction in City Hall, proponents are increasing the volume.
In a new round of TV advertising currently airing in the Chicagoland market, Walmart touts its health care programs, retirement benefits, and the purported upward mobility of its workers. But critics object to this image, countering that it's difficult for many full-time Walmart employees to cover basic living expenses. A new examination of local wage garnishment data -- conducted for Progress Illinois -- appears to back that up.
Wage garnishments provide a useful lens through which to analyze the financial security of Walmart's workforce. Indeed, if a judge allows a creditor to deduct money directly from a worker's salary to force payments on a delinquent loan or credit line, you can be sure that the worker in question is struggling to get by. So how do the number of wage garnishments levied against Walmart employees compare to those at other comparable retailers?
Labor and political consultant Don Wiener, who investigated the debt collection practices of payday lenders for PI earlier this month, dug through the Circuit Court of Cook County's database of civil court filings (made available by LexisNexis) to find out how often Walmart workers faced garnishment in recent years.
The results are striking. Between January 2007 and April 2010, the courts signed off on 707 judgments allowing creditors to garnish the wages of Wal-Mart employees in Cook County. When compared to the statistics for several other major retailers in the county, the findings strongly suggest that Wal-Mart employees are in considerably worse financial shape than their peers*:
The takeaway: A sizeable portion of the Walmart workforce in Cook County accrues debts so large that creditors feel compelled to take them to court.
This finding underscores the importance of the current living wage debate, which has been covered insufficiently (if at all) in the city's major media outlets. Currently, 19 aldermen have sponsored an ordinance that would amend the city's municipal code to mandate that companies with a payroll exceeding 50 people that receive financial assistance from the city (such as tax increment financing subsidies) pay workers no less than $11.03 an hour. The measure would not "prohibit" specific retailers from entering the city. Instead, it would prohibit large companies that depend on taxpayer dollars from paying poverty-level wages.
That type of security is just what many of the city's job seekers need.
* Average employee figures were derived from news reports and public documents. These totals also include part-time employees, some of whom don't take home enough pay to qualify for garnishment under state law (which protects the wages of those whose weekly pay does not exceed 45 times the state minimum wage). Also, we did not adjust for employees who have had multiple garnishments levied against them.