In what the largest U.S. gay rights group calls an "historic move," Walmart told employees Monday that it would extend its health and other benefits to "domestic partners" of its employees, including those of the same sex.
The largest U.S. employer made the announcement quietly in a postcard it sent to employees that listed five other changes in benefits for the coming year, including a new vision plan.
Research by the Human Rights Campaign shows 62% of Fortune 500 companies already offer health benefits to domestic partners.
But the Supreme Court's June decision overturning part of a federal law that denied federal benefits to legally married same-sex partners, has heightened attention on same-sex benefits.
The move also comes as other employers are changing their coverage in ways to be more restrictive in the face of increased costs under the new federal healthcare law known as Obamacare. UPS and the University of Virginia last week announced plans no longer offer coverage for employee's working spouses if they are eligible for coverage by their own employers.
Although it is among the large corporation laggards on moving to offer domestic partner coverage, Chad Griffin, HRC's president, heralded Walmart's decision. Griffin said even worked at his local Arkansas Walmart as a teen.
"I am moved by my former employer's historic action that further proves equality is good business," Griffin said in an emailed statement.
Walmart "has sent a cultural signal that equality for LGBT (lesbian, gay bisexual and transgender) people is the simplest of mainstream values and we look forward to continuing to work with them," Griffin said.
Griffin said Walmart has worked to improve its score on the group's "corporate equality index."
Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove said the company had been working to better define what a domestic partner is and that the Supreme Court's decision helped prompt its move.
Partners of Walmart employees can be of the same or opposite sex and married or unmarried, as long as they've been "living together in an ongoing exclusive" relationship for at least 12 months and intend to stay that way, said Hargrove. Still, Hargrove said "no proof is required today to enroll a spouse."
Lucas Handy, an openly gay former Walmart associate from Fort Dodge, Iowa, says "it shocked me completely" when he heard of the change in Walmart's benefits.
"It would be great if the company kept their promise on this," he said.
But he added that the change may be little relief to workers who struggle to work enough hours to become eligible for health care coverage and to pay the high deductibles. Handy said he was no longer eligible for healthcare after being moved from a full-time customer service position to a part-time pharmacy technician job, but would have had difficulty affording it anyway.
"The real issue with Walmart's healthcare is that most of us are unable to afford the coverage," said Handy, who said he made $8.95 an hour before being fired in July.
Walmart spokesman Kory Lundberg said Handy was fired after a series of policy violations. Handy said he was fired by for speaking out about the company's labor practices.
He is collecting unemployment and volunteering for the labor union-backed group OUR Walmart.
Hargrove said the company is testing how to make it easier for employees to see what shifts are available when they want more hours. He said employees must be with the company a year and work an average of 30 hours a week to become eligible for healthcare coverage.