Last week, President Obama issued a sweeping executive order on immigration, changing the status of about 5 million undocumented workers in the country, among other things. Those immigrants who have so far lived with false papers and in fear of deportation will now have a work permit and a social security number. Those pieces of documentation will not give them citizenship or permanent legal residence in the U.S., but will enable them to work legally and permit travel to and from their home country.
The plan makes other changes to immigration enforcement, but most noteworthy is that it gives legal work rights to 5 million immigrants, which could have profound effect on the nation's economy. Analysts expect the order to lift labor income by $6.8 billion, generating 160,000 jobs and $2.5 billion in tax revenue.
In the private sector, no organization will be affected more by the move than Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT), the nation's biggest private employer and retailer. Wal-Mart employs 1.4 million Americans, or about 1% of the nation's workforce, and many of the low-wage jobs it offers are the type that will attract the newly documented workers. Here's what Obama's decision will mean for the company:
A changing labor force
Many of the 5 million immigrants that will gain legal work status are already employed, but the executive order will boost wages and job mobility as well as encouraging those not currently employed to enter the labor force. As a result, Wal-Mart stands to gain tens of thousands of new job applicants, which could make its own workforce more competitive and productive.
While the new executive order is expected to lift the affected immigrants' wages, it's unclear if it will have an affect on Wal-Mart's costs. The jobs most likely to be affected are positions often filled by immigrants like migrant farm labor and low-level service jobs such as dishwashing and cleaning.
Wal-Mart is no stranger to immigration controversy, having settled a lawsuit in 2005 for $11 million after a federal investigation found a cleaning contractor had hired illegal workers. Many other major corporations have been found to be employing undocumented workers, and with more than 10 million of them in the country, some are likely working at Wal-Mart and major retailers, whether or not their employers know it. Still, the executive order should benefit Wal-Mart by expanding its labor pool, and encouraging those who would otherwise have ignored the company to look for a job there.
But, Obama's decree won't just help Wal-Mart on the supply side. The same company that relies on low-income Americans for its employment base also needs them shopping in its aisles. The company has cited cuts to the food-stamp program as well as the expiration of the payroll tax credit for weak financial performance over the last two years as those policy changes took discretionary income out of its customers pockets. The increases in employment and wages for a key customer demographic from the executive order should help negate the effects of the food-stamp cuts and the payroll tax expiration and boost Wal-Mart's sales.
Obama's immigration plan isn't just a win for Wal-Mart on the supply and demand sides. In September, the retail giant, which has for years wanted to get into the banking industry, launched GoBank, along with financial-services provider GreenDot. The branchless bank will give typically unbanked and underbanked customers access to checking accounts with an avoidable monthly fee, and also lacks the overdraft fees and minimum account balances found with traditional banks.
With five million immigrants about to gain access to documents enabling them to open a bank account, the timing of the initiative could be perfect as that group is likely part of the 35 million in this country who aren't full participants in the nation's banking system. The benefits of GoBank are also multiplied in conjunction with Wal-Mart's money transfer, Wal-Mart 2 Wal-Mart. Attracting those new customers will add to Wal-Mart's coffers through fees on merchants who process GoBank debit card transactions and money transfer fees.
A suddenly bright future
Wal-Mart has been struggling over the past few years, but low gas prices and soaring consumer confidence are priming the retailer for a killer holiday season. Elsewhere, data shows that the economic benefits of the recovery are finally trickling down to lower-income Americans. Real wages have improved 3.8% for the poorest Americans this year, a faster rate than for any other group, and economists expect that growth to continue next year. That trend, coupled with the impact of President Obama's decision should help Wal-Mart at a time when it needs it most.