Does Walmart pay its employees better than left wing magazine “The Nation”?

An email landed in my email box today:

Walmart pays workers 80% more than its liberal critic

Oh, SNAP1! That sounds really bad.  Damn liberal hypocrites!  A click through to the underlying web site reveals this headline with more details:

Walmart still pays its average associate in N.Y. 80% more than The Nation will be paying its interns.

Hmmm, not quite as bad, but still bad sounding.

The web site goes on to quote an article in The Daily Beast entitled Walmart Calls Out The Nation for Its Low-Wage Internship Program.  That article comments on an email sent out by Walmart that chastises The Nation magazine for only now beginning to pay its interns minimum wage (instead of a previous $150 stipend).  The Daily Beast article goes on to state that Walmart employees average much higher wages (pointing out an average of $12.53 in Alabama) and get access to health benefits. So “The Nation” is a hypocritical left-wing double-standard holder who demands high wages from Walmart while paying the absolute minimum itself? Let’s look to the evidence presented to support their case.

First off, which employees are we comparing? On one hand, we have The Nation’s interns — often 10 to 12 college students who get credit for their participation and work for a semester.  On the other hand, we have Walmart’s regular employees.  I’m pretty sure they’re not getting college credit for stocking shelves, and I’m pretty sure most hope to have a job for longer than a semester.  Already this is a apples-to-oranges comparison.

And exactly which of Walmart’s employees are we talking about? All of them? No.  According to Walmart, the pay statistic they quote is for “regular, full-time hourly associates in Walmart Discount Stores, Supercenters and Neighborhood Markets, as of April 30, 2013″.

The term regular rules out interns (not that they have interns working at their stores necessarily).  OK, now it’s not even Apples-to-Fruit.  More like Apples-to-Celery.

The term full-time rules out part time workers.  And that turns out to be a huge exception. According to PBS, one third of all workers at Walmart are not full-time.  And according to this Reuters article, the majority of Walmarts are now only hiring temporary employees.   Walmart has a bad reputation for using part-time employees to keep wages down and avoid having to give employees benefits.  As a result, full-time means that at least one-third of Walmart’s worst paid employees are not included in the calculation.  So we’re comparing the top vs. the bottom and finding the top have it better?

What about the wage statistic itself, how is it calculated?  Walmart says that $12.53 is their average wage.  What the heck is that?  I’m sure they’d like us to think that the average worker at Walmart makes $12.53.  But the wording they use is suspiciously vague; it’s not clear what the math is behind it.  And a hallmark of corporate communications is that ambiguity is almost always used to mislead.  The statistic most people are interested in is “what does the average hourly Walmart worker earn per hour.”  But that’s not what’s being offered; it’s not an average of employees, it’s an average of wages.  Instead, this statistic is most likely to be calculated by adding up all of the wages paid  (to the already selective group of full time employees) during a sample period and dividing by the number of hours those workers worked.

Here’s an example of how all this is intentionally misleading.  

Let’s say you get paid $8/hour, Sam gets $8/hour, and I get $16/hour.  Most people would say the average wage is $10.67/hour (the average of those three numbers).  But using Walmart’s approach, the average wage is going to be reported as $12.57.  How is that possible? Because, as mentioned above, Sam gets dropped from the calculation since he’s part time.  Next, because you work 30 hours a week and I work 40, my pay affects the calculation more than yours does2.  The average of our pay rates is $12 an hour, but the average hourly wage paid is $12.57.

By cherry picking who I average and how I average, I can move my average wage up nearly $2 an hour.  See? I’m paying them better than you think!  At least that’s what Walmart wants you to think.

So let’s take another look at the actual arguments being made and view them in light of the actual facts in hand:

The email subject: Walmart pays its workers 80% better than The Nation:

  • Walmart’s workers in this case are really the top 2/3rds (by pay) of workers.
  • Even worse, the 80% number is from a calculation that is purposefully vague to hide how it makes wages look higher than they really are.
  • The Nation’s workers are actually not all of their workers, not even most of their workers, but just a few short term college interns.

This statement is so false, in so many ways, that it is an outright lie.  But it’s just a teaser for an article, what does the article say? Walmart still pays its average associate in N.Y. 80% more than The Nation will be paying its interns.  How’s that for accuracy?

  • Walmart does not pay its average associate in NY 80% more.  The statistic excludes all part-time workers.
  • It’s still a comparison of Walmart’s best paid workers to The Nation’s interns (who, presumably, are the worst paid), which is not a fair comparison.

If Walmart wants to claim “see, we both pay crappy wages to our lowest level employees”, we could agree they have a logical argument (just not a very good one).  But for anyone to claim that Walmart pays almost twice as much as The Nation does is out and out lying. The people making these claims are counting on the readers not looking at the underlying data or how it is being misrepresented to try to prove a false claim, and relying on false stereotypes conservatives hold near and dear that liberals don’t practice what they preach.

You can see The Nation’s response to Walmart here.


1: Yes, it’s a bad pun.

2: ($8 * 30 hours + $16 * 40 hours)/70 hours total worked = (240 + 640)/70 = 880/70 = 12.57