Skip to site content

Taking Blue-Ribbon Stock of Wal-Mart’s Employees

According to an internal company memo leaked to the New York Times, Wal-Mart is considering hiring fitter and healthier employees in order to combat its own version of a national problem: higher health benefit costs.

The Houston Chronicle reported that executive vice president of benefits for Wal-Mart, Susan Chambers, recommended the retail conglomerate makes sure it hires healthy employees by requiring them to perform physical activity. Cashiers, for example, would have to “round up shopping carts,” and the company would offer educational benefits appealing to younger, more-healthy workers.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
What a novel idea. That is, as long as it doesn’t conflict with anti-discrimination law found in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 or the ADEA (the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967) and its amendment, the Older Workers Benefit Protection Act.
 
Wal-Mart is no stranger to discrimination charges. A class-action suit filed in 2004 alleges that Wal-Mart participated in what amounts to systemic discrimination against women. That includes discrepant salary gaps and diminished access to management positions for women, who populate 70 percent of Wal-Mart’s workforce.
 
Amazingly, though, consumer support of Wal-Mart seems unfazed by the company’s past employment attitudes and practices.
 
In response to charges of discrimination, a statement from walmartfacts.com, a page on Wal-Mart’s corporate Web site, says, “Wal-Mart is a wonderful place for women and minorities to work, and isolated complaints, such as those noted in the Wal-Mart discrimination case, that arise from its 3,000-plus locations do not change this fact.”
 
Wal-Mart is already hyper-aware of discrimination. So whatever it means when it says that it desires healthy employees who can complete a certain degree of physical activity, it is safe to bet that its stores will not pursue discriminatory practices in order to hire “healthier” people.
 
Are Wal-Mart’s new ideas of enforced health worthy of consideration, then?
 
Wal-Mart has consistently been an employer of last resort. It hires persons who for one reason or another could not find work to fit their interests, or because they lack skills needed for employment elsewhere. For this reason, its large, busy stores are populated by an assortment of workers—from the white to the black, from the low-income to the very poor, from the healthy to the unhealthy.
 
Alarmingly, though, nearly half of its workers do without health insurance. Up until this point, Wal-Mart, as the popular but not-unjustified accusations go, has created a culture of fixed poverty for its workers and the communities it inhabits. Its culture, though one excluded from mainstream prosperity, at least has provided a place for those deemed unemployable.
 
Yet, now that Wal-Mart’s new mindset has been revealed, a philosophical reversal seems to be taking shape. We find looming on the horizon a complicated version of what the American eugenics movement in the 1920’s sought through a familiar form of social engineering.
 
After World War I, eugenics societies sprouted in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />United States with names like the Race Betterment Foundation. In 1923, organizers founded the American Eugenics Society, and it quickly grew to 29 chapters around the country.
 
At fairs and exhibitions, eugenicists preached a gospel of purity and health and held “fitter family” and “better baby” competitions to award blue ribbons to the most intelligent, clean and responsible human stock.
 
Achieving fitter families meant keeping people with undesirable traits–traits thought to be linked to genes–separate from others or, where law allowed, preventing them from reproducing. Subsequently, the line between alcoholism and poverty was drawn with DNA.
 
With this movement, health and social status began to be seen as liabilities to the American vision of prosperity. In the same manner, health and accompanying social issues like poverty and education appear to be, in Wal-Mart’s mind, a liability to the company’s prosperity.
 
That is, as long as the law allows. Or, perhaps as long as Wal-Mart’s poorer, less-educated, blue-collar customer base continues to open its wallets. Which, of course, raises more questions, like: Will healthier employees become unintended marketing tools to a consumer pool that occupies most of the lower levels of social and economic indices?
 
When Jesus noticed the dividing and oppressive social disparities around the Pharisee’s dinner table in Luke Chapter 14, he told his host that when a banquet is given, the poor, the crippled and the lame should be invited, even when they cannot return the favor.
 
No less now than in his day, Jesus demands that Christians subvert ugly conventional logic. We are to participate in social reconciliation rather than social engineering. We live in a culture which fears physical and mental imperfection. We also live in a culture where the mentally and physically disabled cannot compete with profits.
 
If we have not had the courage to oppose Wal-Mart’s (sub)culture before now, we must be alarmed at the new thought coming from the company’s best and brightest.
 
Andy Watts is an assistant professor of religion teaching ethics at BelmontUniversity.