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Push for Fair Share law puts focus on Wal-Mart

The Wal-Mart store on Transit Road in Clarence was the backdrop for a rally by groups pushing a proposed state law that would require large employers to pay a greater share of their workers' health care coverage.

About two dozen people, including a handful of small-business owners, gathered to support the proposed Fair Share for Health Care Act, which would make large companies spend at least $3 per hour per worker on health care benefits.

The law would "level the playing field for responsible businesses that struggle to compete against large, hugely profitable employers . . . that shirk their responsibility to provide decent health care benefits to their employees," said Allison K. Duwe, executive director of the Coalition for Economic Justice.

New York's proposed law follows similar legislation passed in Maryland that requires companies with more than 10,000 workers to devote at least 8 percent of payroll costs to employee health insurance.

The New York measure would affect companies not in the agricultural or manufacturing sectors that have 500 or more employees and at least 10,000 square feet of space.

Two business owners said they were at a competitive disadvantage because they must pay for employees' health insurance or pay higher wages to help cover their workers.

"I think they should be held accountable," said Bill Hilliker of American Images, a silk-screening business in South Buffalo. "If we have to force them through this legislation, that's what we should do."

Eddie Egriu is a Buffalo contractor who owns Violation Enterprises. He said that while he does not pay for health insurance for his workers, he starts his workers at well above the minimum wage so they can afford to buy insurance.

"Wal-Mart is making significant profits," he said. "They've shifted the cost [of health care] to the public. We want to shift it back to them."

Duwe criticized Wal-Mart for making part-time employees wait two years before they are eligible for health benefits. "When they do get [two years], the benefits are unaffordable on a Wal-Mart salary," she said.

Wal-Mart spokesman Philip Serghini said the company is "pretty proud of our benefits" and called the proposed legislation "one other way the unions are trying to vilify Wal-Mart."

Serghini acknowledged that part-timers have to wait about two years to get benefits but that the company was "going to greatly reduce the amount of time that part-timers can have before they qualify."

e-mail: jbonfatti@buffnews.com

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