WASHINGTON — Walmart Inc. urged Congress to boost the federal minimum wage, a rare instance of the nation’s biggest private employer demanding change on a contentious issue it’s long been pilloried for.
Calling the current $7.25 minimum wage “too low,” Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon said Wednesday it’s “time for Congress to put a thoughtful plan in place” to boost it. Walmart has raised its starting wage several times in recent years to the current $11 an hour, but that’s still below rivals like Target Corp. and Costco Wholesale Corp.
McMillon has previously expressed support for a higher minimum wage, but this is the first time in more than a decade that a Walmart CEO has specifically demanded new legislation on the matter.
“It’s clear by our actions and those of other companies that the federal minimum wage is lagging behind,” McMillon said at the company’s annual meeting in Rogers, Arkansas. U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders took his presidential campaign to the meeting and introduced a shareholder proposal to add representatives from Walmart’s rank-and-file to the company’s board. The motion has no chance of passing, but Sanders’ presence has forced Walmart to address the issue of its treatment of workers head on.
With 1.5 million employees in the U.S., Walmart’s stance on labor issues can often influence broader American workforce trends.
It’s unusual for Walmart, which has weathered criticism for years over its treatment of workers, to wade into the broader national debate on wages.
But it has precedent: Former CEO Lee Scott said in a 2005 speech that the minimum wage then was “out of date with the times,” and said “it is time for Congress to take a responsible look at the minimum wage.”
McMillon also called for a deliberate approach Wednesday, saying any wage plan should take into account cost of living increases “to avoid unintended consequences.”
His call for action comes as Vermont’s Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, has frequently criticized the CEO’s pay and Walmart’s labor practices on the campaign trail, demanding that it boost starting wages to $15 an hour. Walmart gave McMillon a pay package worth almost $24 million last fiscal year.
“All we are saying to Walmart and the Walton family is to pay your workers a living wage,” he said, “and that living wage is $15 an hour.” Target has said it will reach that threshold by the end of 2020, while Amazon boosted starting pay for its warehouse workers to $15 an hour last year.
Amazon said last year that its lobbyists would start advocating for an increase in the federal minimum wage, which has been $7.25 an hour since 2009.