updated 3/22/2007 1:59:15 PM ET 2007-03-22T17:59:15

Wal-Mart made its annual bonus for store employees public for the first time in two decades Thursday, saying that about 80 percent of hourly workers in its stores would split more than a half-billion dollars.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is the target of union-backed critics who decry its pay and benefits. The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer said it was making the bonuses public as a new way to honor its employees, not in response to critics.

Based on the numbers Wal-Mart released, the mathematical average payment would be $651 per worker but Wal-Mart said the individual amounts varied. It declined to provide a range or the specific level of payments, citing competition with other employers.

In the past, the bonus has been $1,000 for full-time workers and up to $500 for part-timers, according to former Wal-Mart managers who declined to be named because the information is competitive.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Sarah Clark declined to provide individual figures but said the payments varied based on two main benchmarks: whether an employee’s store met profit and sales targets for the year and whether an employee is full-time or part-time.

Adele Phillips, a full-time administrative assistant at a Wal-Mart store in Moreno Valley, Calif., said her bonus was “substantially over $1,000” and more than last year. She declined to be more specific.

“Most of the stores are having a barbecue or some kind of special lunch today because everybody’s worked hard for this,” said Phillips, who has worked for Wal-Mart since 1982.

The company said it awarded more than $529.8 million in bonuses to a total of 813,759 Wal-Mart store and Sam’s Club hourly workers in the U.S.

The company employs more than 1.34 million people in the U.S. Of those, just over 1 million are hourly workers who would qualify for the bonus, Clark said.

Clark declined to provide comparative numbers for the previous year.

Wal-Mart, which refers to its employees as “associates,” said in a news release announcing the bonuses that it was designating Thursday as Associate Celebration Day. It also announced new programs intended to recognize service and performance.

The bonus program was started in 1986 by Sam Walton as a way to give workers a stake in the company’s success, Clark said.

The bonus is tied to the performance of an individual store. An employee gets a check if the store where he or she works meets a benchmark for sales and profit goals for the year. Progress toward those benchmarks is usually charted on a big poster, typically hung in each store’s break room.

Michael Bergdahl, a former Wal-Mart human resources executive who has written about the company, said he believed Wal-Mart released the figures this year in an effort to counter negative publicity drummed up by its critics.

“There is so much negative media about Wal-Mart. This is just an example of how they really treat their people well and they’re putting it out there to let the facts speak for themselves,” said Bergdahl, author of “The 10 Rules of Sam Walton”.

Union-backed WakeUpWalMart.com said the payments were a pittance compared to executive bonuses. Chief Executive Lee Scott received a $3.94 million bonus as part of a total compensation package of $15.7 million, excluding restricted stock awards, for the fiscal year that ended in January 2006. His salary for last year has not yet been published.

“Wal-Mart values are so misplaced that it gives executives hundreds of millions in bonuses and the mere crumbs to associates who have had their hours cut, salaries capped, and affordable health care eliminated,” WakeUpwalMart.com spokesman Chris Kofinis said.

Wal-Mart’s release said the annual bonuses, called “My$hare”, will now be distributed quarterly “to reward performance on a more frequent basis.”

Among the new programs outlined in the announcement are what the company called “Servant Leadership” bonuses, recognizing employees of 20 years or more with an extra week of pay. More than 13,400 employees have been with the company 20 years or longer, the Wal-Mart said.

Also announced as a new program was the “Customer Champion” award, providing cash bonuses to employees “who go above and beyond in providing excellent customer service.” That program will be launched during the summer, the company said.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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