ATTENTION injured Wal-Mart workers: You will remain at the mercy of your employer a little longer.
As reported in Seattle Weekly ("Attention Wal-Mart Workers," April 19, 2001), the state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) moved to seize control of Wal-Mart's workers' compensation program, which covers medical expenses and lost wages for injured employees. L&I charged the nation's biggest private employer with repeated failure to pay benefits on time and other ongoing violations of state law.
But in a settlement just reached, regulators dropped their case against the giant retailer, allowing Wal-Mart to keep control of its program, albeit under some tougher conditions. Ironically, one of the main drivers of the agreement was the state's desire to bring even more Wal-Mart jobs to the area.
According to L&I spokesperson Robert T. Nelson, the settlement requires that Wal-Mart respond to claims more quickly, pay contested claims even while they are on appeal, and hire a local third-party firm to administer claims rather than forcing hurt employees and their doctors to deal with headquarters staff in Bentonville, Ark. Nelson describes the agreement as "pretty solid"—though L&I has already spent years issuing fines and "directives" to Wal-Mart without seeing much improvement, or so the agency said.
Wal-Mart has also agreed to build a new food distribution center, which will create several hundred jobs and a $40 million construction project, most likely in depressed Yakima County. Nelson claims that Wal-Mart had been scouting locations in Idaho and Oregon and was concerned about the workers' compensation situation (as well as the state's new ergonomics law, which goes into effect this summer). Wal-Mart spokesperson Bill Wertz did not return a call for comment.
It may seem odd that the state, which accuses Wal-Mart of mistreating injured workers, is now cutting a deal to get more people working for Wal-Mart. But L&I records do not suggest that Wal-Mart is a more dangerous place to work than comparable employers. And Nelson observes that the company regularly appears on Fortune magazine's list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For. It came in at No. 94 this year, 10 places behind Nordstrom.