Wal-Mart Facing New Challenges from DC Council

The DC Council is expected to adopt new regulations that would force Wal-Mart to play by different rules than other retailers in the District. The measure would require corporations with $1 billion in sales that operate stores with at least 75,000 square feet of retail space to pay their workers $12.50 per hour -- 52 percent more than the District’s $8.25 per hour minimum wage.

What does this mean? Quite a few things. First off, Wal-Mart will reconsider development plans for at least two, if not three, of its stores that are set to open in DC. The stores were a result of years of negotiations between the DC government and Wal-Mart. Now, DC might remain Wal-Mart-free and the avoidable results could be stark. Without the new stores, DC risks losing out on at least 900 jobs and $7 million in annual revenue for crucial items like school repair, community revitalization, or road construction.

There are also the reactions of other big box stores to consider. While Lowe’s doesn’t have a store in DC, Home Depot and Target each have one location. These corporations would be affected, while other popular retailers, such as Starbucks and Apple, would not be.

I am usually examining the unintended consequences of government action but this is wholly intended and understood by lawmakers. Although the law is not explicitly directed at Wal-Mart, the requirements were developed as a result of political tension between the retailer and labor groups within DC. By requiring Wal-Mart to pay wages beyond what is already required by District and federal laws, the Council has all but forced the company to avoid operating in an area with rules that are detrimental to its business. The Council could claim that Wal-Mart is only looking out for its bottom line (like all businesses do), but it would be ignoring the fact that other smaller businesses in DC are paying their workers at lower wages.

Supporters of the Large Retailer Accountability Act cite:

Some large retailers pay very low wages and do not provide their workers affordable health benefits. Without safeguards, large retailers threaten to erode both living standards for working families in the District, especially given the cost of living in the District. By adopting living wage standards for large retailers, The District can ensure that economic development better meets the community’s need for family-supporting jobs.

Supporters also believe that Wal-Mart’s threat of pulling out of DC is a bluff to avoid paying the higher wages.

Wal-Mart’s response:

[The Act] means most shopping dollars will stay in the suburbs, unemployment will remain in the double-digits in some neighborhoods and underserved communities will continue to have disproportionate access to affordable groceries.

According to Slate’s Matt Yglasias:

… I do think councilmembers should consider starting over again. If they think a higher minimum wage would be good for the city, then they should raise the minimum wage. If they think a $12.50 minimum wage would crate a lot of unemployment, then they should raise the minimum wage but raise it to something less than $12.50—there's a big gap between that and the generally applicable $8.25 wage. A special minimum wage that applies to retail workers but not janitors or restaurant workers and to Walmart but not the Gap doesn't make a ton of sense.

We will see how this drama of jobs and wages plays out.