BENTONVILLE, Ark. (BP) -- Walmart will offer health benefits for married and unmarried same-sex partners of all full-time employees in the United States starting in January, the nation's largest private employer has announced.
Walmart spokesman Randy Hargrove defined same-sex couples as those "living together in an ongoing, exclusive, committed relationship -- similar to marriage -- for at least 12 months," according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Though the company expects couples to continue to share a household indefinitely, the newspaper reported, Hargrove said Walmart will not require proof. The coverage also will include heterosexual couples in similar relationships.
"Naturally, [we're] disappointed," Tim Wildmon, president of the American Family Association, said of Walmart's decision. "It validates a lifestyle which we think corporate America should discourage rather than promote." As of press time, Baptist Press had sought other comments from pro-family sources but had not received any and had seen very little in the media.
Observers expected the move, announced via postcards sent to employees Aug. 26, to impact other employers.
"A company Walmart's size, especially with its fairly conservative image, I think it sends a pretty strong signal that if Walmart is offering benefits to same-sex partners, maybe some other companies that have been hanging back will follow Walmart's lead," Alan Ellstrand, a professor in the University of Arkansas' Sam M. Walton College of Business, told the Democrat-Gazette.
Hargrove said the change is in response to the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling against Section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act in June, which cleared the way for same-sex couples legally married in their own states to receive federal benefits.
Rather than have a different set of standards for employees in states where gay marriage is legal, Walmart "thought it was important to develop a single definition for all Walmart associates in the U.S. to give them consistency in the various markets we operate in across the country," Hargrove said.
The Wall Street Journal said Walmart previously had offered benefits to domestic partners of employees in states that required the company to do so by law. The Journal also indicated that Walmart had been under pressure from homosexual advocacy groups to expand coverage.
With 1.3 million workers, Walmart is the nation's largest employer besides the federal government. Half of its employees are enrolled in its health care plans, but the company said it does not know how many will take advantage of the new options.
Chad Griffin, president of the pro-gay Human Rights Campaign, told USA Today he worked at Walmart as a teenager and now celebrates the company's "historic action."
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.
Research by the Human Rights Campaign shows 62 percent of Fortune 500 companies already offer domestic partner benefits, USA Today reported.
Hargrove said the move to include coverage for same-sex domestic partners is "one piece" of the company's updated benefits package, which also includes a new vision plan and 100 percent coverage for some surgeries.
Forbes quoted a leaked internal memo obtained by a gay news blog in which Sally Welborn, Walmart's senior vice president of benefits, told managers the change was a "business decision, not a moral or political decision."
"Given the diverse world we live in today, a comprehensive benefits package that includes domestic partner benefits appeals to the contemporary workforce," Welborn wrote. "Many companies, including most of our competitors, already offer spouse/partner benefits to their employees."
Welborn cited the Publix grocery store chain as one competitor that does not offer such benefits.
"I honestly thought this would never happen," Wayne Bell, whose same-sex spouse Daniel Bonner works for Walmart, told the Democrat-Gazette. "Walmart has always seemed to me like a right wing company, so this is a big surprise to me."
Ellstrand, the University of Arkansas business professor, told the newspaper, "Often, Walmart has to make decisions that are not only motivated by what makes most economic sense, but also what might be perceived as building the image of Walmart."
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress
), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress
) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp