The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Wal-Mart Takes a Hit as MD Lawmakers Approve Healthcare Rules

by Lila Bernstein

In what Maryland lawmakers and labor advocates hope will become a national trend, the state legislature has passed a statute forcing large employers to meet minimum healthcare requirements for their workers.

Apr. 7, 2005 – A Maryland bill that would require large employers to pay their "fair share" of health care costs passed another hurdle Tuesday, but faces a veto by the governor. The Fair Share Health Care Act, which requires businesses with more than 10,000 employees to pay at least 8 percent of payroll costs toward employee health care, cleared the state House of Delegates with a wide margin.

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There are only four entities in the state that fit the bill’s criteria, and the only one that does not meet the minimum health care payments is Wal-Mart, notorious for its low wages and limited employee health care coverage. The retail giant, which is vigorously anti-union, has been blamed by organized labor and other companies for driving down costs and wages so far that other, unionized businesses cannot compete. Wal-Mart’s critics have further contended that taxpayers unfairly subsidize the retailer’s poverty salaries through government health care and other social programs aimed at the poor.

Predictably, Wal-Mart opposed the measure, even going so far as to threaten that the planned construction of a distribution center expected to employ about 1,000 people may be cancelled. Republican lawmakers, a minority in the state legislature, had railed against the bill, calling it bad for business. Some smaller employers had also lobbied against the measure, fearful that the 10,000-employee minimum would eventually be lowered to encompass firms with fewer workers.

But a broad coalition had championed the bill, saying that it was needed in order to end corporate welfare for employers refusing to provide fair health care to workers.

Additionally, advocacy in favor of the legislation had brought together an unlikely alliance between Giant Foods and the United Food and Commercial Workers, which represents Giant’s employees. Giant, which is large enough to be covered under the Fair Share Health Care Act, reports that it already pays about 20 percent of its payroll expenses toward healthcare, in comparison to Wal-Mart, which says it dedicates just short of 8 percent.

Businesses that do not comply will be obliged to pay the difference into the state’s Medicaid fund. The Senate had already easily passed the legislation.

While Maryland Governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr has promised to veto the bill "in a heartbeat," supporters of the Act say they are confident they will successfully override the veto. They also hope that once the state enacts the legislation, other states will follow with their own versions of the law.

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The NewStandard ceased publishing on April 27, 2007.

Lila Bernstein is a contributing journalist.

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