Wal-Mart stoops to a new low

April 4, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on how the country's largest corporation is trying to steal from a disabled woman.

JUST WHEN you thought Wal-Mart couldn't sink any lower...

Former Wal-Mart employee Debbie Shank became a target of the company's lawyers in the wake of a car accident that left her severely disabled. Shank used to stock shelves at Wal-Mart, but she was severely injured in 2000 when her minivan was struck by a tractor-trailer. The accident left Shank permanently brain damaged and in a wheelchair.

Today, the 52-year-old lives in a nursing home and requires 24-hour-a-day care. In addition to her physical disabilities, Shank's short-term memory has been damaged to the point that she can no longer remember that her son Jeremy was killed in Iraq. She breaks down in tears each time she is told again.

One small blessing for the family--or so they thought--was that Shank had signed up for Wal-Mart's health care and benefits plan. The company's insurance did kick in, with Wal-Mart paying a total of about $470,000 for Shank's medical expenses.

Two years after the accident, Shank and her husband were awarded a settlement in a lawsuit against the trucking company involved in the crash. After legal fees, the couple received $417,000--money that was put into a trust for Debbie Shank's long-term medical and nursing home care.

What you can do

You can sign an Internet petition at the Wal-Mart Watch Web site urging the company to let the Shanks keep their money.

Wal-Mart March and another union-sponsored site, Wake Up Wal-Mart, contain a wealth of information on the giant retailers scandalous behavior toward workers, as well news of various activist campaigns.

For a book that details the company's rise to economic dominance, try Anthony Bianco's The Bully of Bentonville. Charles Fishman's The Wal-Mart Effect looks at the impact of the company and its policies on the U.S. economy.

Liza Featherstone's Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Worker's Rights at Wal-Mart documents the class-action lawsuit filed by women workers over sex discrimination in promotions, pay and job assignments.

But after three years went by, Wal-Mart started demanding that the couple reimburse it for the money spent on Debbie's medical expenses. Wal-Mart sued the couple, demanding that it turn over proceeds from the legal settlement.

Like many employer health plans, the fine print gives Wal-Mart the right to recoup any money paid on medical care if the injured person later collects money in a lawsuit.

The legal rationale is that this prevents people from collecting twice for the same medical bill. But in the case of Debbie Shank, the settlement money was clearly going to be used to cover the cost of Shank's future care, which will almost certainly run into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars.

Even so, Wal-Mart sued the family for the entire $470,000. A court ruled in the company's favor, though it did reduce the amount, saying Wal-Mart could only recoup money left in the family's trust--currently about $277,000.

Still, that leaves the Shanks with nothing for Debbie's long-term care. In March, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the case, leaving the Shanks without any other legal options.

"We assumed after three years [that Wal-Mart] had made a decision to let Debbie Shank use this money for what it was intended to," the family's attorney, Maurice Graham, recently told CNN.

Debbie's husband Jim, who is currently recovering from prostate cancer, works two jobs and struggles to pay the family's bills. He told CNN that he may lose his car and is afraid he won't be able to send their youngest son to college because of the cost of both his and Debbie's medical care.

Last year, struggling under the weight of the medical bills, Jim legally divorced Debbie--in order for her to qualify for more money under the Medicaid health program.

Jim Shank admits that Wal-Mart is "within their rights, but I just wonder if they need it that bad...Who needs the money more? A disabled lady in a wheelchair with no future, whatsoever, or does Wal-Mart need $90 billion plus $200,000?"

OF COURSE, Wal-Mart doesn't need the money at all. The company was ranked first on the Fortune 500 list of top U.S. corporations last year, with revenues of more than $351 billion and profits of over $11 billion. Wal-Mart took in $100 billion in just the last three months of 2007--meaning it covered the $470,000 it claims the Shanks owe it in just 37 seconds during that period.

But Wal-Mart spokesperson John Simley told CNN in a statement that the company's hands are tied. "Wal-Mart's plan is bound by very specific rules," Simley said. "We wish it could be more flexible in Mrs. Shank's case since her circumstances are clearly extraordinary, but this is done out of fairness to all associates who contribute to, and benefit from, the plan."

But Wal-Mart has never been known for being "flexible" when it comes to its employees. In fact, the company seems almost proud of the sub-standard wages and benefits it offers.

Last year, it sent Vice President Tom Emerick--the man responsible for designing its employee benefits packages--to lecture business leaders in Dallas. According to the Dallas Morning News, Emerick praised "high-deductible plans," explaining that employees are more likely to curtail health care spending--and save the company money--if they have high out-of-pocket costs to pay.

In 2005, in an internal memo leaked to the press, M. Susan Chambers, Wal-Mart's executive vice president for benefits, expressed dismay over the growing cost of employee health care. To solve the problem, Chambers suggested hiring fewer full-time workers, discouraging the elderly or people with health problems from taking jobs at Wal-Mart and reducing corporate contributions to employees' 401(k) retirement plans.

According to the company's own figures, as of January 2006, just 46 percent of Wal-Mart's 1.3 million U.S. workers had company health insurance. And according to the Wal-Mart Watch Web site, that coverage is full of hidden charges, and plans frequently provide less in benefits than other comparable companies.

For now, the Shanks are out of legal options--though Jim Shank says the family will try to figure out a way to get by and "do the best we can for Debbie."

As MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, who recently nominated Wal-Mart as part of his "Worst Person in the World" series, put it: "Contrary to general opinion, Wal-Mart is not owned by the devil...but you know why people think of Wal-Mart and evil in the same sentence? Because of the crap you guys do like this...Wal-Mart: may your stores melt in the hot sun. Today's worst person in the world."

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