NEW YORK — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. will allow workers’ same-sex partners to participate in its company health benefits, bringing policies at the largest private employer in the United States in line with most of the nation’s top businesses.
Full-time associates’ spouses and domestic partners will be eligible for coverage in medical, dental, vision, life, critical illness and accident plans, the Bentonville, Ark.-based company said in a postcard to employees this week.
“We thought it was important to develop a single definition for all Wal-Mart associates in the U.S. to give them consistency in the various markets we operate in across the country,” Randy Hargrove, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said in a telephone interview.
Wal-Mart, a frequent target of labor-rights groups pushing for better pay and benefits, said it made the change to have a consistent policy for all 50 states as some alter their definitions of marriage. Among Fortune 500 companies, 62 percent offer health care benefits to same-sex partners, up from 34 percent in 2002, according to the Human Rights Campaign of Washington.
The retailer’s definition of domestic partners includes same- or opposite-sex spouses, unmarried partners who live together for at least 12 months, aren’t married to anyone else and plan to continue sharing a household indefinitely, Hargrove said.
“Wal-Mart, as America’s largest employer, has sent a cultural signal that equality for LGBT people is the simplest of mainstream values, and we look forward to continuing to work with them,” Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said Tuesday in an emailed statement, referring to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Griffin said he worked at Wal-Mart as a teenager and was “moved” by the decision.
Wal-Mart has 1.3 million full-time and part-time U.S. workers. More than half of the workers participate in health care plans, the company says. About 1.1 million Wal-Mart workers and family members combined participate in Wal-Mart’s health care plan.
While the change at Wal-Mart might cause some “ruffled feathers” among conservative shoppers, it isn’t likely to cause a significant decline in traffic, said Brian Yarbrough, an analyst at Edward Jones & Co. in St. Louis.
“We’re in 2013,” Yarbrough said. “Same-sex marriage is an accepted thing. Why not offer benefits?”
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to same-sex couples legally married in states that allowed it. The court also reinstated a federal judge’s order allowing gay marriages in California. The Associated Press contributed.