Walmart mulls perks to attract new hires in tight labor market

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(Bloomberg) -- Walmart has polled employees on which perks would be most “meaningful to new hires,” a sign that the retailer is considering fresh ways to deal with an ever-tightening labor market.

The nation’s biggest private employer asked hourly workers to rate potential incentives, including a sign-on bonus, child-care services, tutoring, pet care and gym memberships, according to a copy of the survey obtained by Bloomberg News. The survey was optional, and the company has no current plans to implement any of the perks it asked about, according to spokesman Justin Rushing.

“We’re always listening to feedback from our associates on how to improve our offering and experience,” Rushing said. “While the results of this poll are insightful, we don’t currently have plans to implement anything based on the results.”

Walmart has raised its starting hourly wage to $11, handed out bonuses and expanded its maternity and parental-leave policies this year to stay competitive in a taut labor market. But rival Target trumped Walmart by boosting its minimum hourly pay to $12, and pledged to get to $15 by the end of 2020. Meanwhile, U.S. job openings reached a record in July, while the biggest share of workers since 2001 quit their positions, compounding the pressure on Walmart and other big employers to think of new ways to get fresh applicants through their doors.

The survey asked employees to rate a dozen incentives on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 signifying “This would be awesome!” and 1 signifying “I don’t care about this.” Other perks in the poll were a company-provided mobile device, transportation assistance, immediate access to an employee discount card, access to paid time off from day one, gift cards and an apparel credit.

Perks like sign-on bonuses and gym memberships are on the rise as companies typically prefer them over wage increases, which are much harder to dial back if economic conditions worsen. More than one-third of companies increased the benefits they offer in the past year, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, and the top reasons cited for doing so were to retain and attract new employees.

Along with the wage hike, Walmart has rolled out a slew of new benefits this year, such as a college-tuition subsidy that costs workers $1 a day and a more relaxed dress code. Its trucking fleet just started offering referral bonuses of as much as $1,500 for those who bring in new hires. The retailer has also rolled out a network of almost 200 training academies, teaching thousands of employees new skills in merchandising, customer service and e-commerce.

While some Walmart employees said the potential new benefits were a good idea, others grumbled that the incentives wouldn’t apply to them, according to comments made on a Facebook site frequented by Walmart store employees. The company faced similar criticism when it raised starting wages, as the pay hike meant that new employees could earn as much as some existing staff.

“It’s certainly good news if Walmart is trying to be more responsive to those who work there,” said Adam Reich, an assistant professor of sociology at Columbia University and co-author of “Working for Respect,” a book about Walmart workers. “But the kinds of perks that Walmart is considering seem, in large part, to be responses to problems generated by the low pay and insecure scheduling associated with working at places like Walmart.”

Bloomberg News
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