By SUSANNA KIM
Walmart is defending a holiday food drive for needy store associates at one of its Ohio stores, saying the workers are voluntarily helping colleagues who are experiencing "unforeseen hardships."
In a photo that is being distributed on the Internet by Our Walmart, a labor group that receives funding from United Food and Commercial Workers International Union that is pushing Walmart to unionize its employees, several large plastic bins behind the scenes of a store in Canton, Ohio, are shown with signs that read: "Please donate food items here so Associates in Need can enjoy Thanksgiving Dinner."
Kory Lundberg, a spokesman for Walmart, said this store of about 300 employees has been hosting a holiday food drive for a few years.
"Quite frankly, a lot of people in that store are frustrated and offended that this is reported in a way besides other folks rallying around each other," Lundberg said.
Last year, he said there were about 12 people who benefited from the program.
"I couldn't be prouder of people in that store helping in a tough situation," he said.
"They set the tub up for associates and managers to donate items for associates for things beyond their control," Lundberg said. "It shows these associates care for each other. This isn't every day run of the mill stuff -- maybe a spouse has lost a job or lost a loved one, or maybe a natural disaster has hit."
Lundberg said Walmart has a company-wide program called The Associates in Critical Need Trust that is a non-profit 501(c)(3) to provide financial assistance to associates who are experiencing hardship. Associates can donate to the trust, either through a payroll deduction or voluntary, direct contributions. In 2008, the trust made more than 160 grants to Walmart associates every week. "Since its inception, more than 50,000 associates have sought help through the trust for themselves and their families this way," Walmart says on its website.
In the Canton store associates nominate co-workers with hardships to management to receive food donations.
"They're not the same program but symbolize the same thing: the importance of the company taking care of its people," Lundberg said.
"There's one lady in the store I talked to last week and she was helped out by this program last year," Lundberg said. "The situation came because she stopped receiving child support payments. Nobody plans for that. This store rallied around it."
Lundberg said he did not know if other Walmart locations had similar programs, but some of its other stores may have similar voluntary efforts.
"I'm not aware of anybody else doing this, but again we have 4,000 locations. Last week I wasn't aware this was done. I wouldn't be surprised if many of our stores are doing something," he said.
Lundberg said that no one in the store knows who the food donations will go to because the store management delivers the items to their homes.
"Nobody knows who's receiving benefits. It's a really neat thing that store is doing," he said.
Scott Stringer, of Dayton, Ohio, who supports the Our Walmart movement, was critical of the food drive in Canton, which is about 180 miles northwest from his store.
When asked for his reaction to Walmart's defense of its food drive program in Canton, Ohio, Stringer, 27, said, "The way I feel is that if Walmart feels we're taking such a nice story and making it seem bad, I would say associates are united. We take care of each other, but my question to Walmart is, 'What are you doing to take care of us?'"
Stringer has worked for Walmart for five years.
When one of his co-worker's homes burned down within the last year, Stringer said his colleagues started a collection plate so she could stay at a hotel and start rebuilding her home.
"Walmart didn't do that. We did that. The workers have always been united. Why isn't Walmart uniting to take care of us as well?"