NEW YORK – Walmart has been coming under a lot of fire lately. Two of its suppliers were found to have been making goods in a factory where 112 people died in Bangladesh, and employees throughout the country walked out of its stores on one of the busiest retail days of the year to protest bad working conditions.
But the company, never a crowd favorite at worker-solidarity gatherings, may be trying to improve its image. In a speech to the National Retail Federation here Tuesday, Walmart’s U.S. CEO, William S. Simon, said the company would hire any returning veteran who wanted a job. He also said the company would buy more products from the United States and help more employees become full time.
It was the 2012 election and the gridlock in Congress that motivated Simon to introduce these initiatives, he said.
“The election clarified for me that it’s time for those of us outside politics to get to work,” he said. “I find it fascinating that during the campaign we all waited with bated breath each month for the government to tell us how many private-sector jobs were created. After all, it’s the private sector that creates jobs.”
Walmart said that it plans to hire more than 100,000 veterans in the next five years as part of a program to offer a job to “any honorably discharged veteran in his or her first 12 months off active duty.” Simon said that veterans are often good employees and that his company plans to begin hiring them after Memorial Day.
“Not every returning veteran wants to work in retail,” he said. “But every veteran who does will have a place to go.”
Veterans will be placed in jobs in stores, clubs, distribution centers and the corporate office, he said.
“Hiring a veteran can be one of the best decisions any of us can make,” he said. “Veterans have a record of performance under pressure. They’re quick leaders, and they’re team players.”
Some retail workers questioned whether veterans would want to work for Walmart. They include Edgar Lucas, 38, an Army veteran who has worked for Walmart and other retailers.
“If you are looking out for the veterans, they need something that’s guaranteed 40 hours a week,” he said. “They need to know their schedules.
“Everybody knows that Walmart – they’ll work you 28 hours and make sure that you don’t get 40,” he said.
Lucas, who lives in the Bronx, said most retail jobs are the same. He has been stringing together a variety of such jobs, trying to get enough hours and knowing that he won’t get benefits unless he gets to full time.
During the speech, a group of protesters in the hall unveiled a banner that read “NRF: Stop Clocking Out Workers, It’s Time for Good Jobs and Just Hours.” They chanted in the hall until they were escorted out. About 100 workers from various groups protested outside.
“Workers are going to make sure that the kind of jobs that they’ve announced for veterans are the kind of jobs that workers need,” said Yana Walton, a spokeswoman for Retail Action Project. “That means enough hours and living wages and jobs with benefits.”
Aside from the publicity, the hiring initiative will generate tax breaks for the retailer.
Under a U.S. tax provision that was extended through 2013, employers can get tax credits of as much as $9,600 for hiring veterans, depending on their disability status, hours of work and other criteria. The one-year extension was part of the tax law that President Obama signed Jan. 2 and is estimated to cost the government $125 million in foregone revenue in the next decade.
In his speech, Simon defended Walmart jobs. “We’re all tired of retail jobs being put down, as if retail workers can’t judge for themselves what a good job is,” he said. “Some people say we don’t offer good jobs. I say this industry is the greatest engine of opportunity in the United States of America.”
Simon pledged to bring more transparency to the store’s scheduling system to allow part-time workers to choose their own hours, and said Walmart would make internal changes to help part-timers become full time. He didn’t provide details about how the company would do that. He did say, however, that 75 percent of Walmart’s store management started as hourly associates.
Simon concluded his speech by announcing that Walmart and Sam’s Clubs will also increase what the companies buy in the United States – an additional $50 billion in U.S. products over the next 10 years.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.