Five years ago, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty tried to convince Wal-Mart that the District was a vastly underserved retail desert, a bonanza of pent-up spending just waiting to be tapped. Wal-Mart executives sniffed around and demurred.
Finally, Mayor Vincent C. Gray took on the recruiting portfolio just as Wal-Mart’s growth at its traditional suburban and exurban outlets was flattening and the company was trying out a new, smaller model of stores in inner cities. In 2011, the numbers and timing finally clicked for Washington: Wal-Mart committed to building its first stores in the city.
Now, as the D.C. Council moves toward a final vote Wednesday on a measure that would force Wal-Mart to pay workers at least $12.50 an hour — a substantial premium over the city’s $8.25 minimum wage — the retailer is crying foul, protesting that it made the six-store deal based on current business conditions with no expectation that those conditions might change dramatically before the first store opens.
But a review of the District’s decade-long quest to attract Wal-Mart shows that wages were rarely, if ever, the prime issue in its negotiations with politicians, developers, community activists and neighborhood residents.
Wal-Mart executives and lobbyists have repeatedly assured D.C. leaders that the company intends to pay its workers in the city at least as much as the council’s “living wage” legislation would force them to — and possibly more.
More than a year ago, a senior Wal-Mart executive, Tony Waller, told a group of D.C. clergymen that the company would pay District employees a starting salary higher than the amount now proposed by the D.C. Council, according to two people who were at the meeting.
Promise of $13 an hour
“They promised they were going to start people at $13 an hour, and they said that over and over and over,” said the Rev. Graylan Hagler, senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church in Northeast Washington.
Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo confirmed that the company plans to pay D.C. workers at least what it says it now pays full-time employees in suburban Virginia — an average of $12.39 an hour. He nonetheless called the council’s initiative an unfair bait-and-switch tactic.
“We were just operating under the assumption that the city’s minimum wage would remain in place,” he said. “It seems like some members of the council are interested in moving the goal posts at the eleventh hour.”
Restivo said the retailer’s decision to open in the District was based on “current market conditions, wage rates, the cost of doing business and the price of real estate, and we had no reason to believe that any of those business conditions were going to be changed.”