Remarks hit Walmart's virus efforts

A civil-rights leader told Walmart shareholders at their annual meeting Wednesday that hundreds of the company's workers died of covid-19 because the disease "was allowed to spread through your stores, largely in secret, as your workers feared for their lives every day."

The Rev. William J. Barber II made the remarks in a prerecorded message in which he presented a shareholder proposal submitted by Cynthia Murray, a leader of the worker advocacy group United for Respect.

Murray's proposal called for the creation of a Pandemic Workforce Advisory Council to improve the flow of information between hourly employees and the company's board of directors. She invited Barber to present the proposal at Wednesday's meeting.

Barber said in his brief remarks that he was speaking on behalf of Murray "and in support of employees living in poverty and low wages."

"We call people essential workers but treated them like they're expendable," Barber said.

The proposed advisory council would "provide advice to the board, including any relevant board committee, upon request, on pandemic-related workforce issues, including health and safety measures, whistleblower protection and paid sick leave," Barber said.

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Walmart responded to Murray's proposal in its proxy statement, saying the company has prioritized the health and safety of its employees and customers throughout the pandemic.

The company believes the proposed council is unnecessary "because we believe the company has already demonstrated it took and continues to take appropriate measures in responding to the needs of our associates and customers during the covid-19 pandemic and because our associates already have many channels through which to communicate and express concerns."

The Bentonville-based retailer opted again this year to hold the meeting online because of the pandemic. The meeting is usually held in Northwest Arkansas.

In the virtual meeting format, shareholders eligible to vote were able to attend, ask questions and cast their votes using an online link. The 30-minute meeting was webcast live on Walmart's corporate website for the public.

Voters considered a total of eight proposals, including four submitted by shareholders.

Shareholder proposals requested that Walmart report on its plans to reduce hydrofluorocarbon refrigerants released from its operations; report annually on the company's payments for lobbying, including the name of each recipient and the amount paid; and report on how Walmart's racial justice goals and commitments align with the starting pay of all its employees -- Walmart has said nearly half of its hourly workers are people of color.

The last proposal concerned Walmart's involvement with the "Statement on the Purpose of a Corporation" issued in August 2019 by the Business Roundtable, of which Walmart Chief Executive Officer Doug McMillon is chairman.

According to the statement, corporations serve all stakeholders -- including employees, customers, communities and supply chains -- as well as shareholders.

The proposal asks Walmart's board of directors to review this statement and report on how the company's organization and management systems would have to be altered to conform to it, "and what our company should do if the statement cannot be reconciled with current practices and commitments."

As expected, voters rejected all of the shareholder proposals.

A preliminary tally showed that the shareholders approved annual compensation packages for Walmart's top executives. They also ratified Ernst & Young LLP as Walmart's independent accountants for fiscal 2022.

In addition, shareholders elected 12 nominees to one-year terms on Walmart's board: Cesar Conde, Timothy P. Flynn, Sarah J. Friar, Carla A. Harris, Thomas W. Horton, Marissa A. Mayer, McMillon, Gregory B. Penner, Steven S. Reinemund, Randall L. Stephenson, Rob Walton and Steuart L. Walton.

Eight of the 12 are independent directors.

Stephenson, the former chief executive of AT&T Inc. who was appointed to Walmart's board in March, was up for election for the first time, McMillon pointed out.

Rachel Brand, Walmart's chief legal officer, said final voting results will appear in a report to be filed Friday with the Securities and Exchange Commission.