Wal-Mart’s Living Wage Pay in the District

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By C.N. Staff Writer

001In late March, the District’s council held a public hearing on the Large Retailer Accountability Act (LRAA), a bill that deals with several large retailers, but much of the discussion of the hearing focused on Wal-Mart. The company is set to open six stores across the city.

Council Chairman Phil Mendelson introduced the bill in January, with every councilmember signing the bill as a co-sponsor except Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). In the hearing supporters and opponents of the bill testified before the council about their feelings of the proposed changes. With over 30 people testifying, there were scores more people present with shirts that were either in support or against the bill and Vincent Orange, Chairman of the Consumer and Regulatory Affairs Committee had to ask several times for the room to quiet down.

The bill would enact a new law that would apply only to large national retailers, with more than $1 billion in sales, who open D.C. stores of greater than 75,000 square feet. Such stores would be required to pay a “living wage” of at least $11.75 an hour to all employees — a 62 percent premium over the federal minimum wage. D.C. already has its own super-minimum wage of $8.25 an hour (set by law at $1 above the federal minimum). A past version of this bill put the threshold at 30,000 feet, but this bill’s reach would be limited to retailers as Wal-Mart, Costco and Home Depot, two of which are already in operation within District lines.

Notably absent from the hearing was a Wal-Mart representative, although they did send written testimony. Orange said, “It’s to Walmart’s detriment for them not to be here, to put on the record themselves and make their case.”

A crowded chamber heard many public comments about their thoughts on the bill’s proposal. Supporters of the bill argue that Wal-Mart enjoys substantial profits that allows them the flexibility to pay their workers $11.75. Supporters also believe it is difficult to live in the District while earning $8.25 an hour and support across-the-board wage increases, but believe starting with big stores like Wal-Mart is a step in the right direction.

Opponents say that mandating living wages would send retailers packing and that stores like the large chain have been arbitrarily targeted, while exempting profitable retailers like Apple and Nike that have smaller local footprints. Opponents also say that smaller companies risk loosing employees who will flock to these large retailers in search of better pay.

D.C. Chamber of Commerce CEO Barbara Lang called the measure “further proof to business that the District is not interested in changing its unfriendly business ways.” Former At-Large Councilmember John Ray was also present to testify and called the bill discriminatory.

As the chain prepares to enter the nation’s capital, two of their six proposed stores, are set to open this year. They have been in talks about coming to D.C. since about 2002.

Wal-Mart has worked the ground game in D.C., hiring city lobbyists, meeting with elected officials and supporting community and civic associations with grant money. They even helped fund a group in their support, called “Don’t Block D.C. Progress,” and they were present, along with another newly formed group who were ant-Wal-Mart, “Respect D.C.”

Their ground game has worked, particularly in neighborhoods that are void of any corporate stores. Stretching their stores to the corners of the District, the company has focused most of its stores on the blighted areas, like Ward 7’s East Capital Street where a store will open and the northern most part of Georgia Ave. NW in Ward 4. Still the store will have locations in Ward 5 and on the edge of Ward 8 in the soon-to-be re-developed Skyland Shopping Center.

Some Councilmembers seemed to agree that there is room for the bill to be amended, while others tried to avoid picking sides. Attendees of the hearing had strong views, either way, but must wait for a final decision to be made.

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