Last Thursday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Walmart was in talks to acquire the health insurance company Humana, currently valued at around $37 billion, raising the prospect of another merger with transformative implications for the benefits industry. Both companies are keeping mum about the possible deal, though Bloomberg heard from a person familiar with the talks that the most likely outcome was a closer partnership between the retailer and the insurer, which already collaborate on providing prescription drugs for US senior citizens insured through Medicare (Humana is the second-largest provider of government-supported private Medicare Advantage plans in the US).
Either way, a closer partnership between these giants could have some major implications for the US health insurance market, especially in combination with the other changes that are going on. The pharmacy chain CVS announced in December that it had agreed to purchase the insurer Aetna for $69 billion as part of an effort to transform its 9,700 retail drug stores into “health care supermarkets” complete with wellness clinics for preventive care (That merger was approved by shareholders last month but has yet to pass muster with antitrust regulators in the Justice Department).
A similar move by Walmart would be groundbreaking, given the big-box retailer’s massive presence throughout the US. Even a deal to provide health care for Walmart’s 1.5 million US employees would be significant. Walmart becoming a health care provider would make a big difference, Tracy Watts, senior partner at Mercer, tells Employee Benefit News reporter Kathryn Mayer:
“I would think whatever happens with the deal, Walmart would leverage its relationship with Humana to provide primary care or extend convenience care to its employees in addition to the general public,” Watts says. She also predicts the retailer will leverage its onsite care locations to provide a convenient, cost-effective way for employees and others to receive basic treatments. “For employees to get healthcare from Walmart in those rural locations can be a really good thing,” she says.
Last October, Walmart announced that it was rolling out shelf-scanning robots at 50 stores throughout the US after piloting them at a smaller number of locations in Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and California. The robots are taking over some of the menial busywork that used to occupy employees on the store floor: checking shelves for out-of-stock items, incorrect prices, and wrong or missing labels.
At the MIT Technology Review, Erin Winick recently talked to Martin Hitch, chief business officer at Bossa Nova, the San Francisco-based robotics firm that created the machines, about how employees and customers were reacting to them. While you might expect employees to resent having their work automated or fear that the robots would put them out of a job, Hitch said employees “instantly become the advocates for the robot”:
One way they do that is by giving it a name—the robots all have Walmart name badges on. The employees have competitions to see what the right name is for each robot. They also advocate for the robot to the general public. It’s the store staff saying, “It’s helping me.” We see them now defending the robot.
Walmart, the world’s largest private employer, announced on Thursday that it was raising its starting hourly wage from $9 to $11 per hour, introducing a more generous parental leave policy, and offering one-time cash bonuses based on length of service for its US workforce. CEO Doug McMillon revealed the changes in a note to employees:
[W]e’re raising our starting wage to $11 an hour for Walmart U.S., Sam’s Club, Supply Chain, eCommerce and Home Office hourly associates effective in February. We’re also providing a one-time bonus to hourly associates that pays a larger amount the longer you’ve been with our company. Associates that don’t benefit from the new starting wage increase are eligible for the bonus and it will range from $200 to $1,000 depending on your length of service. …
I’m also excited to tell you that we’re making an important change to benefits by expanding our paid leave policy to provide full-time hourly associates with 10 weeks of paid maternity leave and six weeks of paid parental leave. This expanded parental leave also applies to salaried associates and to parents who adopt. We will also contribute $5,000 to the cost of adoption.
McMillon cited the corporate tax cut passed by the US Congress in December as part of what prompted the company’s decision. Several other major US employers, including AT&T, Wells Fargo, and Boeing, have also announced plans to invest part of their tax savings in raises or bonuses, though most companies have said these savings will mainly be spent on debt repayment, dividends, and stock buybacks.
Walmart has announced a new partnership with two financial technology startups, Even Responsible Finance and PayActiv, that will enable its 1.5 million US employees to access wages they have earned before payday, Bloomberg reported on Wednesday. Employees will be allowed eight free uses a year of Even’s Instapay tool, available through its personal finance app. The app links to the employee’s checking or prepaid account and Walmart’s payroll system. Walmart’s Chief People Officer Jacqui Canney described the partnership as an investment in employees’ financial wellbeing, as it will help protect them from having to rely on payday loans when emergency expenses arise:
The move could address a painful reality of low-income hourly workers, whose cash flow is far from predictable. Income volatility has been increasing in recent years, according to research from the Pew Charitable Trusts, and studies from the Federal Reserve show a lack of emergency savings among many workers. The inability to weather an unexpected car repair bill or medical expense can send a low-income worker into a debt spiral, and financially stressed workers can be less engaged and not as productive.
Walmart is the world’s largest private employer, so its HR policies have a tendency to set benchmarks that other major retailers and employers of the same talent cohorts are forced by market pressure to match. Sometimes that means pushing up the real minimum wage, and sometimes it means embracing automation and raising concerns about the displacement of low-wage jobs. In this latest move, Walmart is challenging its competitors to offer their store employees more financial flexibility, using these new payroll and personal finance technologies.
Walmart, the largest private employer in the US, is testing a self-driving mechanical floor scrubber in five of its stores near its headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, LinkedIn managing editor Chip Cutter noted in a recent blog post—and it’s not the only automated technology the big box giant is looking into:
The machine resembles a traditional scrubber but comes equipped with similar technology used in self-driving cars: extensive cameras, sensors, algorithms and Lidar for navigational mapping. Think of it as a Roomba crossed with a Tesla. A human must first drive the device to train it on a path; it can then operate largely independently, including when a store is open to customers. If a person or object gets in its way, it momentarily pauses and adjusts course. …
Walmart has said it wants to automate tasks that are “repeatable, predictable and manual,” giving its people more time to focus on higher-value work like customer service and selling.
Many of the menial tasks involved in retail work are ripe for automation, and Walmart is by no means the only major retailer experimenting with new technologies. Lowe’s rolled out an autonomous retail service robot called “LoweBot” in the San Francisco Bay Area last year, while Amazon continues to invest heavily in its robotic workforce. Being such a massive employer, however, Walmart can affect the entire US economy with its labor market decisions, so any changes it makes are bound to attract attention. In this case, Walmart’s move highlights concerns about the impact of automation on the workforce: What happens when the country’s largest employer no longer needs so many employees?
Yet Walmart is sensitive to this concern, Adam Pasick and Karen Hao write at Quartz, and has stressed that it is not using machines to replace employees:
Since Walmart began a push to raise wages for its legion of store employees last year, leaders at the big box chain have attributed its solid performance to the greater investment they were making in their staff. And because Walmart is such an enormous actor in the US economy, its choices have ripple effects in the retail sector. Over at Quartz, Oliver Staley argues that while some see the company’s size as being a “malign force,” that doesn’t take into account how Walmart’s choices can be also be beneficial:
The company also has used its massive buying power to eliminate waste in packaged goods and to drive down the cost of energy-efficient light bulbs, speeding their widespread adoption. Raising wages can have an even bigger impact. Walmart employs one in 10 US retail workers, and one out of every 100 US private-sector employees. Just as the company forced competitors to hold the line on wages, increasing its pay is now pressuring rivals to match it.
Walmart also raised salaries for entry-level managers in response to the Obama administration’s now-defunct overtime rule last year, but at the bottom of the pay scale, seemingly small increases, say from $10 to $11 an hour, can make a big difference in the lives of the working poor. Walmart is such a huge employer, Staley points out, that its pay practices effectively set a benchmark for the rest of the retail industry, pressuring other retail giants like Target to commit to adopting a $15 minimum wage by 2020:
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In light of the competitive US labor market, the coming holiday season has employers hiring early and often to meet their needs for people power, with warehouse and logistics jobs accounting for a large portion of the seasonal spike as online shopping continues to outpace in-store sales and retailers expand their e-commerce operations to suit shifting consumer demand. Not everyone is preparing for the holidays with a massive recruiting drive, however. Walmart, for example, is eschewing the traditional hiring spree this year and instead giving more work to its existing employees, Abha Bhattarai reported at the Washington Post earlier this week:
“These extra hours will help staff traditional roles like cashier and stocker, and newly created positions such as personal shoppers and pickup associates,” Judith McKenna, chief operating officer for Walmart U.S., said in a statement. “This is what working in retail is all about, and we know our associates have the passion to do even more this year.”
Walmart employees and labor advocacy groups say the move could help address long-standing complaints among workers who say they are underemployed. Many part-time employees, they said, would like full-time work. Walmart considers 34 hours a week full time, when workers receive more benefits. …