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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, August 30 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 35
Living better at Walmart? - Retail giant to offer health coverage for same-sex partners
Section One
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Living better at Walmart? - Retail giant to offer health coverage for same-sex partners

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

Walmart, the country's largest private employer, said on August 26 that it would offer health insurance to its employees' domestic partners, including same-sex partners, beginning January 1, 2014.

'We operate in 50 states, hundreds of municipalities, and Puerto Rico, and as clarified under the Supreme Court's decision regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), each of these states are developing different definitions of marriage, domestic partner, civil union, etc.,' Walmart Vice President Sally Welborn said in a memo to company managers.

'By developing a single definition for all Walmart associates in the U.S. and Puerto Rico, we are able to ensure consistency for associates in various markets.'

The memo was also given to employee members of the PRIDE associate resource group, which numbers close to 750 LGBT Walmart employees.

To qualify for coverage, employees and their partners must 'live together in an ongoing, exclusive, committed relationship similar to marriage' and 'have been together at least 12 months and intend to continue sharing a household indefinitely,' the company said.

OBAMACARE AN IMPETUS
Under the terms of the Affordable Care Act, companies with more than 50 employees will be required to offer health insurance to their workers, as Walmart acknowledged in Welborn's memo.

'The Affordable Care Act (commonly referred to as 'ObamaCare') inextricably linked health insurance with employment,' the memo says. 'As such, for our associates for whom we offer health insurance, we want to be sure we are providing access to as many individuals and their families as possible.'

About 1.3 million people work for Walmart in the United States. Only the U.S. Department of Defense, which includes the military, employs more Americans.

Walmart lags behind many other large companies in offering insurance coverage for same-sex partners. Sixty-two percent of the Fortune 500 already offer health benefits for same-sex domestic partners or spouses, according to HRC's 2013 Corporate Equality Index.

According to the company, about 1.1 million people, including employee family members, are covered by Walmart health care plans in the United States. Part-time employees must work for Walmart for one year and average 30 hours per week to qualify.

COST COMPLAINTS
Employee activists, who in recent months have staged well-publicized strikes at several Walmart facilities, say that the cost of the company plans puts them out of the reach of most employees.

'The real issue with Walmart's health care is that most of us are unable to afford the coverage. I made $8.95 an hour before I was abruptly fired for speaking out for better jobs. That's not nearly enough to afford health care or cover most of my expenses,' said Lucas Handy, an openly Gay former associate from Fort Dodge, Iowa, who was fired from Walmart in July, allegedly for speaking out about the company's labor practices. He maintains the firing was illegal.

If anything, the cost of employee insurance will increase over the next several years. According to Reuters, Walmart's U.S. employees are set to pay 3% to 10% more for their medical coverage next year, depending on the plan chosen.

The lowest-priced and most popular plan for a Walmart employee will cost $18.40 per biweekly pay period next year, up 5.7% from $17.40 this year, the company said.

The company said it will send tailored guides to its U.S. employees the week of October 8.

Average annual U.S. health insurance premiums rose an average of 5% for individuals and 4% for families in 2013, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation's 2013 Employer Health Benefits Survey released on August 20.

This year, Walmart began to offer its U.S. employees and their dependents free heart and spine surgeries at six major health centers. Next year, it plans to also fully cover hip and knee joint replacements at certain hospitals.

Dental and vision coverage are offered for additional fees, which for an individual are about $7 biweekly for dental and $2 biweekly for vision.

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