Md. Requires More Health-Care Spending for Wal-Mart

A customers leaves a Wal-Mart store in Clinton, Md.

A customers leaves a Wal-Mart store in Clinton, Md. Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Maryland lawmakers Thursday overrode Gov. Robert Erlich's veto and approved a measure, directed at Wal-Mart, requiring a certain level of expenditure on employee health care. Unions are vowing to push for similar laws in at least 30 other states.

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Maryland lawmakers have passed a bill that will force Wal-Mart to spend more money on employee health care. Unions are vowing to push for similar laws in at least 30 other states, though some say the retailer is being unfairly targeted. NPR's Allison Keyes reports.

ALLISON KEYES reporting:

Lawmakers voted to override Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich's veto and approved a measure requiring any company with 10,000 or more employees in Maryland to spend at least 8 percent of its payroll on health care for workers. Businesses that spend less would have to contribute the difference to the state Medicaid fund. Democratic delegate Salima Siler Marriott says this vote is only the beginning.

State Representative SALIMA SILER MARRIOTT (Democratic Delegate, Maryland): So as Maryland goes on this particular issue, so will the nation. Everyone must pay their fair share to ensure our citizens.

KEYES: Right now, Wal-Mart is the only firm that would have to change its policies because of the bill. But Maryland's Democratic Finance Committee chair, Thomas Middleton, insists the company isn't being singled out. He says other big businesses support the so-called fair share health care measure.

State Senator THOMAS MIDDLETON (Maryland Democratic Finance Committee Chair): I'm not a Wal-Mart basher. But I do have an expectation of the largest corporate citizen in this state that they not lead other retail businesses to the bottom when it comes to taking care of health care. They are the largest corporation. They set the bar.

KEYES: Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sara Clark says the legislation passed in Maryland does nothing to make sure that everyone has access to affordable health insurance.

Ms. SARA CLARK (Spokesperson, Wal-Mart): There are 786,000 uninsured people in the state of Maryland and less than one half of 1 percent work for Wal-Mart. Clearly, the legislators who voted for this bill have let down hundreds of thousands of people in need in Maryland.

KEYES: The Retail Industry Leaders Association is among several groups that lobbied against this bill. The trade group's senior vice president for federal and state government affairs, Paul Kelly, says the legislation will hurt businesses nationwide.

Mr. PAUL KELLY (Senior Vice President for Federal and State Government Affairs, Retail Industry Leaders Association): This is a slippery slope. This is a bad precedent and bad health policy.

KEYES: He says the 90 national retailers in his organization think the Maryland measure could create an environment unfriendly to business growth and expansion.

Mr. KELLY: We tend to have a work force which is different from other work forces. It tends to be younger and healthier. We believe that retailers need the flexibility to provide health care benefits that meet the unique demographics of their work force, and anything which ties their hands and requires them to do a specific level of coverage is problematic.

KEYES: But labor unions are vowing to get similar legislation passed in other states this year, including Colorado, Connecticut and Washington. The AFL-CIO says profitable companies like Wal-Mart are destroying the nation's health-care system by shifting their health insurance cost onto workers, taxpayers and other businesses. The union's Naomi Walker says it's launching a long-term, grassroots campaign involving writing letters and calling lawmakers across the nation to support similar measures.

Ms. NAOMI WALKER (AFL-CIO): It's got a momentum that's not going to be stopped, and we're going to be mobilizing members and voters in the upcoming year around this.

KEYES: Five similar bills were killed in other states, one has been vetoed by Vermont's governor, and six other measures are still under consideration.

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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