Wal-Mart Stores Inc. affirmed its support for an increase in the federal minimum wage after its chief lobbyist in Washington was quoted Wednesday as saying the nation's largest employer was neutral on the issue.
Chief Executive Lee Scott, who made headlines last October when he first backed an increase in the $5.15 hourly pay rate, said Wednesday he still supports a raise.
"There are a number of proposals before Congress. Though we do not intend to take a position on any single piece of legislation, we believe Congress should increase the minimum wage," Scott said in a statement.
Wal-Mart says it pays well above the minimum wage — an average of $10.11 an hour for full-time employees in the U.S. Scott said many Wal-Mart customers are low-income families and would benefit from increased wages because they struggle from month-to-month.
Scott spoke after the publication Roll Call quoted Lee Culpepper, Wal-Mart's chief lobbyist, as saying Scott's comments were misinterpreted last fall and that Wal-Mart did not back a minimum-wage increase.
According to Roll Call, Culpepper said Scott in October was only asking Congress to look at the issue, not to raise the minimum wage.
"He said Congress should take a look at it. If reporters want to report differently from that, I can't speak to that," Culpepper was quoted as saying.
Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams declined to comment on Culpepper's interview. She said Scott spoke out again Wednesday in order to make clear that Wal-Mart's position was unchanged.
Wal-Mart is not backing any particular bill and leaving it to Congress to decide how much any increase should be, Williams said.
Williams said the world's largest retailer is not lobbying on the issue, which is under renewed debate in Congress between Democrats who want to raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1997 and a Republican majority that is opposed.
Scott said it was a complex issue.
"There are reasonable voices speaking to all sides of the issue. We look forward to seeing the legislative process take its course and determine the best solution for America's working families," the CEO said.
Williams said Wal-Mart is also not lobbying the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in which it is a member, to drop the group's opposition to an increase.
Union-backed critics of Wal-Mart had jumped on Culpepper's comments, calling it a flip-flop that showed Wal-Mart was only paying lip service to a higher minimum wage.
"Wal-Mart will say anything, even lie about its position on the minimum wage, in order to try and salvage its declining public image," said Paul Blank, director of the campaign group WakeUpWalMart.com, which is trying to pressure Wal-Mart to improve pay and benefits for its workers.
But Scott said Wal-Mart's position was unchanged.
"In October, I said that the federal minimum wage of $5.15 was out of date with the times. I still believe that today," he said.
"We see this firsthand at Wal-Mart with many of our customers struggling to get by. This is especially true in light of today's high gas prices," he added.