Walmart made a splash last week when it announced that, starting next year, it will offer health insurance benefits to Walmart associates’ domestic partners, including same-sex spouses. Yup, the same Walmart whose CEO signed an anti-gay petition, whose Board of Directors repeatedly opposed a resolution to include gender expression and identity in the company’s non-discrimination policy, and which stopped contributing to gay-rights groups after social conservatives threatened protests.
But don’t go looking for a rollback on prices for rainbow flags at the company’s stores quite yet: An internal memo from the company’s Senior Vice President of Benefits explains that the change is “a business decision, not a moral or political decision.”
Specifically, Walmart management appears to have realized that the company needs to offer domestic partner benefits if it wants to become a member in good standing of the 21st century business world. After all, 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies –and eight of the 10 largest publicly-traded companies on the Fortune list—already offer these benefits. (Plus, the Walmart SVP’s memo acknowledges that the “contemporary workforce” pretty much expects domestic partner benefits, and that offering them will help employee recruitment and retention.) Ads increasingly feature gay couples, and many major companies publicly celebrated the Supreme Court’s rulings on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and California’s Proposition 8.
Speaking of the Supreme Court, its decision on DOMA may have forced Walmart’s hand on domestic partner benefits, in a way. As Bloomberg pointed out, given that Walmart operates across states that have a variety of laws on marriage and partnerships, it’s simply easier to implement one consistent benefits policy nationwide rather than cobble together a patchwork of policies for every conceivable circumstance.
Interestingly, one openly gay former Walmart associate called the company’s decision “freaking awesome,” but noted that many store associates can’t afford the high deductibles in Walmart’s insurance plans or are not given enough hours to qualify for health insurance coverage in the first place. (Walmart associates must work an average of 30 hours a week and must have worked at Walmart for one year in order to qualify.) “The real issue with Walmart’s health care is that most of us are unable to afford the coverage,” he told USA Today.