(AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Walmart, the country’s largest private employer, has announced it will no longer provide comment to The Huffington Post, one of the nation’s largest news outlets. Walmart announced its new policy in a statement to The Huffington Post, which was published by The Washington Post Friday evening. The retail giant doubled down yesterday, charging in an e-mail to Politico that a Saturday Huffington Post story—for which Walmart had refused to comment–was “riddled with inaccuracies” and “reinforces our company’s decision to no longer participate in the Huffington Post’s one-sided rhetoric.”
Reached over e-mail, Huffington Post Executive Business Editor Peter Goodman accused Walmart of making a “false” assertion, and said he “can’t recall another company cutting off access in this fashion.”
The Huffington Post has devoted significant coverage to Walmart and its current labor struggles. Walmart’s new policy towards the outlet preceded the publication of Saturday’s story—indeed, the statement announcing the policy appears to have been issued in response to a request for comment for it. That statement cited “one-sided reporting and unfair and unbalanced editorial decisions made by Huffington Post reporters and editors.”
Among The Huffington Post’s most extensive, and least flattering, articles about Walmart was a November 16 piece titled “Walmart’s Internal Compensation Documents Reveal Systematic Limit on Advancement.” That story revealed a company document that, according to reporters Alice Hines and Christina Wilkie, “details a rigid pay structure for hourly employees that makes it difficult for most to rise much beyond poverty-level wages.” The article included criticisms of the company’s pay scale from current and former employees, and a defense from Walmart spokesperson Kory Lundberg, who cited the volume of Walmart job applications as evidence that “We’re clearly offering jobs that people want…”
Hines and Wilkie reported that although the “advisory document for company managers” is “addressed to Sam’s Clubs…multiple Walmart employees confirmed that the plan applies to Walmart stores as well.” (Sam’s Club is a wholly owned subsidiary of Walmart.) While telling the Huffington Post that Walmart pay and benefits “meet or exceed the majority of our competition,” Lundberg confirmed the document’s existence. News outlets including MSNBC cited the November 16 story’s finding that, based on that document, “a ‘solid performer’ who starts at Walmart as a cart pusher making $8 an hour and receives one promotion, about the average rate, can expect to make $10.60 after working at the company for 6 years.” Asked by e-mail whether any of the numbers in that story were inaccurate, Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove told The Nation that the Huffington Post “would not share [the document] with us…What we can tell you is that the average hourly wage for a Walmart associate is $12.57 per hour.” (An IBISWorld report pegged that wage at $8.81.)
Walmart’s most recent criticism of the Huffington Post concerns a Saturday story by Hines titled “Walmart’s New Health Care Policy Shifts Burden to Medicaid, Obamacare.” The story discussed the increase—from twenty-four to thirty–in the minimum weekly hours that new employees will have to work in order to qualify for Walmart’s health plans (the twenty-four-hour minimum was put in place last year and went into effect this year; there was no minimum in the year before). Hargrove told Politico that “the premise of the article can be negated with two simple facts.”
One of these, Hargrove said, was that “Since the policy has been in place, a higher percentage of associates signed on for our health care benefits for 2013. Why? Because our health care plans are affordable.” That claim doesn’t directly contradict Hines’ story, which focused on the changes in eligibility, and referred to one of Walmart’s plans as costing “a seemingly affordable sum,” before noting its “hefty” annual deductible of $2,750. Hargrove’s assertion on affordability is disputed by workers active in the union-backed group OUR Walmart, who’ve told The Nation and other outlets that they reluctantly dropped their coverage in response to increased costs, which Reuters reported will be as high as 36 percent for some plans. (Hargrove told The Nation that the “higher percentage” refers to a comparison with enrollment last year; he declined to say what that percentage is.)
The other “simple fact” Hargrove offered Politico was, “This is not a ‘new plan.’ A simple Google search would have revealed the plan you refer to that requires ‘part-time’ associates work 30 hours per week has been in place for nearly a year and has been covered by multiple news organizations.” Huffington Post’s Goodman called that claim “false,” and told The Nation, “This is a new policy distributed to employees this fall in a book that outlines benefits, a policy that takes effect in January.”
Walmart's critique depends in part on the meaning of the word “new.” Reuters reported on the changes in Walmart health plans’ costs and eligibility in a November 12 story, noting that Walmart had described them to employees in “mailings sent to employees for its recently completed open-enrollment period,” the window in October for workers to select health plans for the coming year. Asked about his statement over e-mail, Hargrove told The Nation that the plan was not “new” because it had been made public earlier this year.
Hargrove referenced a page on Walmart’s website which he said was drawn from Walmart’s 2012 Global Responsibility Report, originally released in April of this year. The rule that part-time workers can receive benefits after one year only “if they work an average of 30 hours per week” appears in an italicized footnote on page 52 of the report. Health plans are not mentioned in an April 16 Walmart press release announcing the report.
Hargrove told The Nation that the news of the 30-hour requirement was provided directly to workers prior to September 2012, but declined to say how or when. He said that the news was also reported in the media prior to October but declined to offer an example, saying “an online search will identify other news organizations that covered the news.” A LexisNexis search for April through September of this year turned up one mention of the 30-hour rule, in a June 8 USA Today story on OUR Walmart’s organizing efforts.
Hargrove confirmed to The Nation that, because the 30-hour change only affects employees hired after January 2012, and part-time employees are not eligible for healthcare during their first year with the company, the 30-hour requirement–which he criticized the Huffington Post for calling “new”–would not begin impacting employees until 2013.
In an e-mailed statement, OUR Walmart activist Mary Pat Tifft, a 24-year Walmart employee, said “We always get notice of healthcare and other changes in the fall.” OUR Walmart members Colby Harris and Barbara Andridge also told The Nation they and their co-workers first learned about the changes during or soon before open enrollment in October.
The November 12 Reuters story noted that, “Newly hired part-time employees at Wal-Mart will have to work a minimum of 30 hours a week, up from 24 hours previously, before they qualify for coverage.” The Huffington Post confirmed that its reporting was based on the same documents cited by Reuters (Goodman noted that his outlet’s story was focused on eligibility, whereas Reuters focused on affordability). Asked whether Walmart believed Reuters’s article to be inaccurate as well, Hargrove responded that Reuters’ description of the part-time policy “aligns with what we listed in our Global Responsibility Report.” Asked whether Walmart’s claim of factual inaccuracy in the Huffington Post story rested on the term “new,” Hargrove referred The Nation back to Walmart’s statements to Politico yesterday (along with the “two simple facts,” he had faulted the Huffington Post for not reporting positive features of the aforementioned $2,750-deductible plan, including its “up-front $250 contribution” for medical expenses).
Reached over e-mail, Cornell communications professor Jenny Barnett called Walmart’s decision to freeze out the Huffington Post “somewhat unusual.” Barnett, a former executive editor in chief at Harper’s Bazaar, said Walmart’s move “won’t stop Huffington Post from covering Wal-Mart” and “may backfire for them.” She added that Walmart’s strong language “doesn’t leave them with an option to return to cooperating in the future without potentially losing face.”
A year ago, the retail giant took a different approach to the web outlet’s coverage. On December 12, 2011, the Huffington Post published a story by reporter Lila Shapiro taking an in-depth look at OUR Walmart’s organizing efforts. According to a follow-up story by Shapiro, the day after her article was published, Walmart employees saw “an altered summary of the story on the company’s internal news wire that removed all criticism of its labor practices” and combined “phrases from different sections of the article to strengthen Walmart’s anti-union message.” In an interview at the time with the Huffington Post, Walmart’s senior director of community affairs defended the edits, saying, “We condense articles much in the same way any news editor would, by highlighting portions that are of interest to the audience that’s reading them.”
Lancaster, Texas OUR Walmart activist Colby Harris told The Nation that he believes Walmart is cutting off the Huffington Post because its reporters gave him and other workers an opportunity to be quoted alongside corporate spokespeople. He added, “I don’t think they like that.”
A group of students in San Jose fought back against low-wage employers like Walmart, and won a city-wide living wage. Read their story here.