Wal-Mart Employees: Fat, Poor, Unhealthy Robots

Wal-Mart can't win. Even when the discount giant does something liberals would approve of, like offering white-collar perks such as exercise classes to its blue-collar workforce, the Times finds negatives. The paper's chief nemesis of Wal-Mart, beat reporter Michael Barbaro, proved that in his Thursday front-page business story, "At Wal-Mart, Lessons in Self-Help."


"Wal-Mart, which is known for its rigid rules, is also giving the program an unusually democratic structure. The company is training - and paying - hundreds of employees to recruit their colleagues, holding off-site retreats for participants (a rarity for hourly workers) and tracking workers' progress in written reports that measure participation rates.


"During a workshop in Houston several weeks ago, Wal-Mart managers and hourly workers spent five hours at the zoo learning about environmental sustainability, a lesson that included tips on reducing carbon emissions and consuming healthier, more environmentally friendly food. By the end of the day, each employee had written down a pledge - or, in the program's parlance, a personal sustainability practice.


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"This is a far cry from the mandatory, at times robotic Wal-Mart cheer ('Give me a "W," give me an "A," ' and so on) uttered every morning at the chain's 4,000 United States stores - and that, organizers say, is the point.


To succeed, the program must be personal, with each of Wal-Mart's employees tailoring it to his or her own life. Wal-Mart has left the initiative purposely vague, the better to encourage workers to decide how to improve themselves.


"The challenges for Wal-Mart are significant. Its workers earn, on average, less than $20,000 a year, which means that fitness and ecology are, by necessity, relatively low priorities. Wal-Mart attracts a transient work force, with frequent turnover making it difficult to train people over time. And a disproportionate number of its employees suffer from chronic diseases that stem in part from poor eating habits."