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Walmart is paying $20 billion to shareholders. With that money, it could boost hourly wages to over $15.

Walmart employs more than 1 million Americans. Its base pay is below the federal poverty line for a family of three.

Walmart workers and activists protest outside a Walmart store in Chicago in June 2014.
Walmart workers and activists protest outside a Walmart store in Chicago in June 2014.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

After the Republican tax bill passed, Walmart announced it would boost the minimum wage paid to its workers to $11 an hour, give “eligible associates” a $1,000 one-time bonus, and deliver other new benefits to an estimated 1 million employees thanks to its tax cut.

If the company hadn’t also planned to deliver $20 billion to shareholders via stock buybacks over the next two years, a decision announced before the tax bill was passed, it could have done a lot more.

If Walmart wanted to spend that $20 billion on workers instead, according to a report released by the left-leaning think tank the Roosevelt Institute this week, it could increase their wages by $5.66 an hour to a $16.66 base wage. Or it could buy its employees Walmart stock and turn them all into shareholders, doling out about 113 Walmart shares — currently valued at about $83 apiece — to each.

An associate of OUR Walmart, an association of Walmart employees, put forth a proposal for a floor vote at the annual shareholders meeting on Wednesday calling on the company to put a dollar into its associate stock program for every dollar it puts into its shareholder buyback program. Walmart noted in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing that it was aware of the proposal and planned to recommend that shareholders vote against it.

The proposal failed Wednesday’s shareholder vote. So did two other shareholder proposals Walmart recommended against — one that would have required its chair be independent from the board of directors and another that asked it to produce a report on potential ethnic and racial wage gaps.

Many companies choose to spend their money on shareholders over workers. Stock buybacks have been trending up for multiple years, and the tax bill has exacerbated them: Corporate stock buybacks hit a record $178 billion in the first three months of 2018. But Walmart is worth examining because its employees are trying to do something about it, and because how Walmart’s workers are treated and paid stands in for bigger questions about who benefits from economic growth, what sorts of responsibilities companies have to their workers, and what constitutes a living wage in America.

Walmart employs more than 1 million Americans. Its base pay is below the federal poverty line for a family of three.

Walmart employs an estimated 1.4 million people in the United States and has often found itself front and center in the battle over what counts as a reasonable living wage in America.

“In the world there is a debate over inequity, and sometimes we get caught up in that, and retail does in general,” Walmart CEO Doug McMillon said in a 2014 interview on CBS with Charlie Rose, the year the company announced it would try to pay its employees more than the federal minimum wage — of $7.25.

Walmart has made efforts to improve life for its workers in recent years: The company raised its minimum wage to $9 in 2015, to $10 in 2016, and to $11 an hour in January, and added a paid family leave plan earlier this year. Still, at 34 per hours a week, Walmart’s threshold for full-time work, that amounts to about $19,000 a year — below the federal poverty line for a family of three. Meanwhile, the company reportedly has pushed workers not to unionize and has been accused of retaliating against workers who organize.

Eddie Iny, campaigns director for OUR Walmart, pointed out that it is often newer employees who benefit from minimum wage boosts. If you were making $13.85, the average wage for full-time associates Walmart was paying before the increase in January, the $11 minimum doesn’t do much for you.

“They don’t proportionally increase wages for everyone else, and it’s mostly gone to people who are entry-level or in their first year,” Iny said. Walmart’s current average full-time wage is $14.07 — 22 cents more than it was before the $1 base hike.

Laura Gonzales, a 49-year-old single mother of three who has worked at a Walmart in Fort Worth, Texas, for seven years, told me that she saw her wage get boosted to $11 with the company’s announcement in January. She started at $6.75. But after her pay went up, the number of hours she worked went down, especially after she told her managers she was not able to work weekends. “If they’re going to take your hours away, this isn’t worth anything,” she said in a phone interview.

Dreama Lovett, 52, works in Walmart’s online grocery division in Jacksonville, Florida, and has been with the company for two years. She works 40 hours a week for $11.50 an hour — less than she made 25 years ago when she started out at a different job at Procter & Gamble for $12.50.

When I asked her if she felt her Walmart pay was a livable wage in a phone interview, she said no and laughed. “You’re looking at about $450 a week before taxes and insurance, and when that comes out, you’ve only got about $300 and something a week, if that,” she said. “I don’t know too many people that can live off of that.” She talked about earning pins as a reward for good work — she’s gotten two.

“Workers need real wages, and wages that bring them out of poverty,” said Randy Parraz, campaign director of Making Change at Walmart, a project of the United Food and Commercial Workers International labor union.

Walmart used to share more of its profits with workers. Then it ended the program.

Companies buy back stock as a way to use excess cash and return money to shareholders. When they repurchase shares of their own stock, it leaves remaining shareholders with a bigger chunk of the company and increases the earnings they reap per share. Proponents say share buybacks, just like any spending, are ways to put money back into the economy — Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin made such an argument at a US Chamber of Commerce meeting earlier this year. And they point out that many Americans are invested in the stock market, whether on their own or in their 401(k)s or pension plans. (According to Gallup, just over half of Americans own stocks at all, and the richest 10 percent of Americans own 80 percent of all stock shares.)

Walmart has paid shareholders more than $120 billion through buybacks and dividends over the past decade, including $14.4 billion in 2017. Near the end of 2018, it said it would be spending an additional $20 billion on buybacks through 2019.

Meanwhile, the company has cut back on sharing its profits with employees. From 1971 to 2011, Walmart automatically put company money into an employee’s retirement plan — up to 4 percent of his or her pay — without requiring the employee to contribute.

“The more you share profits with your associates — whether it’s in salaries or incentives or bonuses or stock discounts — the more profit will accrue to the company,” wrote Sam Walton, the retailer’s founder, in his posthumously published 1993 autobiography Sam Walton: Made in America. “Why? Because the way management treats the associates is exactly how the associates will then treat the customers.” (Walton had his own sketchy history with trying to avoid paying workers.)

In 2011, the company switched its 401(k) plan to matching worker contributions at up to 6 percent of pay, which requires its employees to save for retirement.

OUR Walmart estimates that an associate starting in 2011 at $10 an hour would have lost out on $6,300 as a result of the plan being axed. Kory Lundberg, a spokesperson for Walmart, said since the profit-sharing change was made, Walmart is “investing more money in associates’ retirement, and associates are saving more for their retirement.” He said the company does not disclose the complete numbers on what it was spending then compared to now.

Thanks to the GOP’s tax bill, Walmart is about to free up more cash — it expects to see an extra $2 billion this year due to the tax cut. Walmart in January said its $11 wage hike would cost it about $300 million this fiscal year and that the bonuses would add on a one-time $400 million charge for the prior fiscal year.

Lundberg said that shareholder benefits and employee wages aren’t an either-or scenario at the company. “We can do both — we can both invest in share buybacks and invest in our associates,” he said.

But while there’s no way to know the rate at which Walmart will buy back its stock before the end of 2019, let’s say it spends $10 billion this year. If it were to decide instead to spend that money on the 1 million workers it boasted about helping in January, there’s a lot it could do.

According to the Roosevelt Institute’s estimates, redirecting the buybacks to wages would translate to a $5.66 wage increase for employees. That would mean a $16.66 starting wage instead of $11 and an increase in the base annual salary to $29,445 from $19,448.

Or Walmart could change its associate stock purchase plan, a preexisting program that lets workers buy stock through a paycheck deduction and provides a 15 percent match of up to $1,500 per year.

If Walmart were to swap $10 billion on dividends and turn it into employee stock grants instead, the researchers estimate 1 million employees could get about 113 Walmart shares each.

A Walmart spokesperson disputed the report’s estimates and said raising employee wages would be much more costly.

Chart showing how Walmart could have used $10 billion of its stock buybacks to boost employee wages or distribute stock to workers.
Walmart could boost workers’ wages or distribute stock to them using the money it’s giving to shareholders via buybacks instead.
Lenore Palladino and Adil Abdela, the Roosevelt Institute

Lenore Palladino, a senior economist and policy counsel at the Roosevelt Institute who wrote the Walmart buybacks paper with research associate Adil Abdela, said it’s well documented that such programs help employees feel invested in the places they work for the long term and also build wealth. It’s not clear how many Walmart employees take advantage of the program, but given the low wages they earn, it’s unlikely many of them can make much use of it.

Interest is growing in getting companies to share profits with workers — not shareholders

The prevailing idea in corporate America is that it’s more important to reward shareholders than to increase worker pay — boards of directors have a fiduciary duty to look out for their investors, and buybacks are an increasingly popular way to boost stock prices and keep Wall Street happy.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) in March put forth legislation that would mandate that companies buying their own shares also pay out to their employees. The same month, Sen. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) introduced a bill that would increase disclosures on stock buybacks and require public companies to let workers directly elect one-third of their board of directors.

But that’s not the direction Walmart — or the rest of corporate America — is moving in.

“There’s this idea within companies that any wealth must be distributed to shareholders, which is not the best way for a business to be run,” Palladino, from the Roosevelt Institute, said.

This year, Walmart is changing the format of its annual shareholder meeting. It used to host shareholders and associates at one big gathering on the same day. This year, it held the shareholder vote on May 30, and it will host a separate gathering for associates and shareholders on June 1.

Randy Hargrove, a spokesperson for Walmart, said that Walmart associates will all be invited to the Friday gathering, which he said is a “celebration” of the company’s workers. “We just felt like it was an effective use of our time if we split those formats,” he said.

Meanwhile, Walmart’s stock has trailed the S&P 500 for the past five years, and Iny said that might be a signal to investors that buybacks aren’t the answer to the retailer’s underperformance.

“There’s a strong investor case to be made that the company should not be allocating as many share buybacks that they do, and there’s a better course — that’s having a deeper investment in their associates,” he said.

Update: Story has been updated with the failure of shareholder proposals.