Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will now allow workers’ same-sex partners to participate in its company health benefits, bringing policies at the largest private employer in the U.S. in line with most of the nation’s top businesses.
Full-time associates’ spouses and domestic partners will be eligible for coverage in medical, dental, vision, life, critical illness and accident plans, the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company said in a postcard to employees this week that was provided to Bloomberg.
Wal-Mart, a frequent target of labor-rights groups pushing for better pay and benefits, said it made the change to have a consistent policy for all 50 states as some alter their definitions of marriage. Among Fortune 500 companies, 62 percent offer health-care benefits to same-sex partners, up from 34 percent in 2002, according to the Human Rights Campaign.
“Wal-Mart, as America’s largest employer, has sent a cultural signal that equality for LGBT people is the simplest of mainstream values and we look forward to continuing to work with them,” Chad Griffin, president of the Washington-based group, said today in an e-mailed statement, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Griffin said he worked at Wal-Mart as a teenager and was “moved” by the decision.
Wal-Mart has 1.3 million full- and part-time U.S. employees, he said. More than half participate in health-care plans. A total of 1.1 million employees and family members are covered by the plans, he said.
The retailer’s definition of domestic partners includes same- or opposite-sex spouses, unmarried partners who live together for at least 12 months, aren’t married to anyone else and plan to continue sharing a household indefinitely, Hargrove said.
“We thought it was important to develop a single definition for all Wal-Mart associates in the U.S. to give them consistency in the various markets we operate in across the country,” Randy Hargrove, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said in telephone interview.
Wal-Mart fell 0.2 percent to $72.86 at the close in New York. The shares have risen 6.8 percent this year, compared with a 14 percent gain for the Standard & Poor’s 500 Index.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in states that allowed it. The court also reinstated a federal judge’s order allowing gay marriages in California.
Thirteen states and the District of Columbia allow gay marriage. A judge in New Jersey said Aug. 15 that she’ll rule soon about whether same-sex couples in the state can marry. Just today, New Mexico gay couples won a court ruling ordering county clerks in Albuquerque and Santa Fe to issue marriage licenses in a lawsuit brought by same-sex couples who had previously been turned away.
Wal-Mart’s decision to expand eligibility for benefits comes the week after United Parcel Service Inc. said it would drop health insurance coverage for about 15,000 working spouses of white-collar employees to curtail rising costs. Many spouses in the U.S. workforce will have access to employer-provided insurance under President Barack Obama’s health-care system overhaul, and UPS will remove them from its coverage. Spouses who lack such benefits or don’t work still will be eligible at Atlanta-based UPS, according to the memo.
While the change at Wal-Mart might cause some “ruffled feathers,” among conservative shoppers, it isn’t likely to cause a significant decline in traffic, said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co. in St. Louis.
“We’re in 2013, same sex marriage is an accepted thing,” Yarbrough said. “Why not offer benefits?”