The nation’s largest retailer will begin to offer domestic partner benefits to its employees in same-sex relationships, although LGBT advocates are calling on the company to go further.
Walmart — which, with more than two million workers, is the biggest private employer in the world — announced that it would begin to offer these benefits along with other changes on Monday in a postcard that was sent to workers obtained by the Washington Blade and other media outlets.
Under the heading “Enrolling domestic partners,” the postcard states, “Beginning in 2014, if you’re a full-time associate you can cover your spouse/domestic partner in the medical, dental, vision, life, critical illness or accident plans.”
Randy Hargrove, a Walmart spokesperson, said the “full suite” of benefits will be available starting Jan. 1 to employees who have domestic partners.
“The benefits that we will be offering will be available to an associate’s same or opposite-sex spouse, or an unmarried partner, whether it’s the same or opposite-sex,” Hargrove said.
The company, Hargrove said, defines domestic partnership as someone living in a relationship similar to marriage. The parties in the relationship must be living together for at least 12 months and intend to continue sharing a household indefinitely.
But Hargrove said the company isn’t looking for proof from employees that they have met requirements and is working off an honor system.
“Walmart’s beliefs are built on a foundation of integrity, and so no proof will be required to enroll a spouse or partner, just as no proof is not required today to enroll a spouse,” Hargrove said.
Hargrove said the company isn’t taking a position on same-sex marriage, but is adopting the new policy as different states enact different laws on marriage equality.
“We haven’t taken a view on that, but what we’ve done is we’ve developed a single definition for all our associates that can provide consistency across all of our markets because different states are developing different definitions of marriage and domestic partnerships, civil unions,” Hargrove said. “By adopting a single definition, we’ll offer clarity and consistency for our associates.”
While Hargrove said the company has provided benefits to employees in opposite-sex marriages, he said the company hasn’t recognized same-sex marriages and those couples will have to go through the domestic partnership system to receive benefits.
Hargrove said the policy change came about after discussions within the company, but not the result of any kind of board vote.
Chad Griffin, president of the Human Rights Campaign, said in a statement provided to the Washington Blade that as a teenager he worked at his local Walmart in Arkansas — the home state of the company’s corporate headquarters.
“Now, as president of the Human Rights Campaign, I am moved by my former employer’s historic action that further proves equality is good business,” Griffin said. “Having worked for years to improve their HRC Corporate Equality Index score, Walmart, as America’s largest employer, has sent a cultural signal that equality for LGBT people is the simplest of mainstream values and we look forward to continuing to work with them.”
According to HRC’s 2013 Corporate Equality Index, Walmart previously offered an LGBT-inclusive non-discrimination policy, but in addition to lacking partner benefits also didn’t provide transgender-inclusive health insurance or LGBT competency training or resources.
Michael Cole-Schwartz, an HRC spokesperson, said the institution of domestic partner benefits will change Walmart’s score on the Human Rights Campaign’s CEI score, but HRC is still assessing what that will mean in terms of points.
“They are likely not at 100 percent so after we figure their final score there will definitely be more for them to do,” Cole-Schwartz said. “Walmart has been on a slow but steady progression of LGBT inclusion and we expect that will continue.”
News that Walmart will begin to offer domestic partner benefits comes amid controversy after the company announced it has halted plans to build stores in D.C. after the District passed a law requiring large retailers to pay at least $12 an hour to employees.
Darren Phelps, executive director of the LGBT labor group Pride at Work, said he welcomes the change to offer domestic partner benefits to employees, but wants to see more from the company in terms of wages for employees.
“Our issue with Walmart first of all is workplace safety,” Phelps said. “While they are extending domestic partnership to same-gender loving people in our community, our workers should receive their living wages. We have great issues around that. While they have an extended an olive branch, Walmart needs to step up and do what is right to make sure that all workers are receiving liveable, fair wages.”
CORRECTION: An initial of this version misspelled the name of Walmart spokesperson Randy Hargrove. The Blade regrets the error.