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The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

Serving the UMN community since 1900

The Minnesota Daily

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On-the-job health plans shrinking

The social contract binding a company to its community is fast becoming a relic.

Among the dozen or so ballot initiatives facing California voters Tuesday was Proposition 72, a law that would have forced the state’s biggest companies to provide their employees with health insurance or pay into a state insurance pool.

Voters rejected the measure by the narrowest of margins, thanks in part to vigorous opposition from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and the retail industry. But that shouldn’t stop elected leaders in California and around the country from new efforts to make large companies insure their workers.

The nation’s largest retailers have long fattened their bottom lines by skimping on health benefits for employees. With health-care premiums exploding and Wall Street analysts urging chief executive officer’s to cut costs, it’s no wonder many low-wage workers and their families end up in public health-care programs.

Taxpayers are left with a hefty bill. Wal-Mart, which couples miserly wages with restrictive benefits policies, is the most publicized example of a company awash in profits and willing to dump its employees at the doorsteps of the state. Backers of Tuesday’s initiative in California put the state’s annual cost of caring for Wal-Mart employees at $32 million. That’s a drop in the bucket for a company that made a cool $8 billion in 2002.

The Wal-Mart story points toward a much bigger problem with corporate America today. The social contract that should bind a company to its surrounding community is fast becoming a relic of a kinder, gentler age. In the frenetic race to cut costs and build market share, too many companies have turned a blind eye to the social good. Corporate philanthropy now feels like a necessary evil on the road to a sparkly clean public image and high profits.

The solution begins with measures such as Proposition 72 in California. Already, momentum is building in Washington state for a law to make large corporations provide their workers with affordable health benefits or recoup the state for its losses. Other states should follow suit.

The alternative is a corporate culture that shirks its social responsibilities at the public’s expense.

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