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Wal-Mart Denounces Health Bill

But health benefits remain a focus of unwelcome attention for Wal-Mart. Organized labor and unionized retailers argue that because the discount chain covers less than half of its employees, companies across the economy are being forced to cut benefits to compete, dragging down workers' standard of living.

Although the legislation before the General Assembly does not name Wal-Mart, it appears to be the only company affected by it. The bill would require organizations with more than 10,000 employees to spend at least 8 percent of their payroll on health benefits -- or put the money directly into the state's health program for the poor.

The coalition backing the legislation said it expected similar bills to be introduced in several other state legislatures and, possibly, the U.S. Congress. U.S. Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) yesterday said he would try to use the General Assembly's bill as a model for a health care reform proposal he plans to introduce in Congress, though he did not offer a timetable.

In addition to Giant, the coalition backing the Maryland bill includes the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 400, which represents Giant's Washington area workers. Both Giant and Local 400 have cited increasing competition from Wal-Mart and other nonunion retailers as the impetus for proposed benefit cuts.

Giant Vice President Barry F. Scher said that health care costs now account for 20 percent of Giant's payroll expenses. By comparison, Wal-Mart spends between 7 and 8 percent, Hurst said.

Scher said Giant is not singling out Wal-Mart. "We believe there should be a level playing field for every employer in the state," he said. "When that does not happen, we all shoulder the cost of the uninsured."

C. James Lowthers, president of Local 400, said the debate "is about what's right for the country."

"We have a system of health care through employers, and Wal-Mart is not providing an adequate plan." Lowthers said Local 400 waged "one of its most aggressive lobbying" efforts to win support for the bill in the General Assembly.

Maryland Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert) said lobbying on the issue from labor groups was "very light."

"It's an issue that's been around for a while, and all of us recognize that Wal-Mart doesn't do right by its employees," Miller said.

Business groups worry the bill will hurt Maryland's chances of attracting new companies. Robert O.C. Worcester, president of Maryland Business for Responsive Government, a business advocacy organization based in Baltimore, said companies big and small will now fear state intrusion into their health care plans.

"This bill says, 'Come to Maryland and your overhead costs will be unknowable,' " he said.

Staff writer John Wagner contributed to this report.

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