Make Wal-Mart pay

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EDITORIAL According to the University of California's Labor Center, the state spent $86 million last year paying for heath care and social services for the families of people who work at Wal-Mart. That's right: Wal-Mart pay is so low, and so few of its workers have decent health insurance, that a lot of employees wind up using public health clinics and the taxpayers foot the bill.

It's unfair not only to the Wal-Mart employees and the rest of us who have to pay the bills for one of the most successful and lucrative companies in the world, but also to other employers in the state, particularly small businesses that struggle to provide health insurance.

State senator Carole Migden has introduced a bill that would force Wal-Mart to quit demanding millions in public subsidies. SB 1414 would require any business with 10,000 or more employees in California either to put 8 percent of its total payroll into health insurance for workers or pay an equivalent amount of money to the Department of Industrial Relations. That's still a fairly low payment a lot of companies spend far more than 8 percent on health benefits, and Wal-Mart can well afford to do better. But it's a good start, and it sends the message that employers who won't pay a living wage can't just count on California to make up the difference.

Wal-Mart is under fire from activists around the country for its cutthroat competition and its attempts to keep unions out and wages low. But it's by no means the only employer that is trying to get out of paying health benefits. Migden's bill would only hit the biggest of the big, but it's similar to legislation proposed by Sup. Tom Ammiano that would force San Francisco businesses (including much smaller companies) to provide some sort of health care.

In the end, all of this is the wrong model: Employer-based health insurance is an unstable, inefficient, and hugely expensive way to cover medical bills. At some point, even the Wal-Marts of the world should realize that paying taxes to fund a national single-payer health system is cheaper and better for everyone.

But that's not happening today, and Wal-Mart's corporate welfare is. The legislature should pass Migden's bill posthaste.