SEATTLE, WA — Some of the state’s wealthiest corporations — including Amazon, Starbucks and Fred Meyer — employ thousands of low-wage workers who receive public food assistance. Experts say this is a phenomenon driven by low wages and tenuous employment arrangements, like seasonal or on-demand work.
Through a public records request, Patch obtained a list from the state Department of Social and Health Services of the top 50 companies in the state according to how many employees receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) assistance. Walmart ranked No. 1 with nearly 4,000 employees while Amazon, Safeway, McDonald’s and Uber were among the nine companies that have at least 1,000 workers receiving SNAP.
“One of the symptoms of low-wage work is these workers showing up on public assistance rolls. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in and of itself, it’s certainly not great. But the issue is their wages are low,” said Ian Perry, research and policy associate at the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education.
Patch reached out to several companies on the list. While many did not respond, some said the state list is misleading because it includes part-time or seasonal workers. Others highlighted good benefits.
Fred Meyer spokesman Jeffery Temple said the company employs 16,666 in Washington, and just under 10 percent receive SNAP.
“Fred Meyer is investing in our associates and developing talent more than ever before, including offering a new industry-leading education benefit available to more associates, up to $21,000 to support their future and live our purpose to Feed The Human Spirit,” he wrote in a statement.
The state list
According to the state list, about 36,000 workers in Washington received SNAP benefits as recently as Aug 23. The federal government sets income guidelines for SNAP. But, in general, a single person would qualify if they earn less than $1,945 gross per month, or about $12 per hour.
The state Department of Social and Health Services is able to track where SNAP recipients work through application forms. But the department doesn’t use the data for any particular purpose, according to officials. The state does not actively communicate the information to the companies on the list. The list contains a mix of employment types, like seasonal or part-time.
Babs Roberts, director of DSHS’ community services division, said the department can query the list at any time, and has done so “only a few times” on an ad-hoc basis.
The good news, Roberts said, is that the overall number of people getting SNAP in Washington has decreased in recent years. A healthier economy and increases in minimum wage have contributed to that, she said. Roberts also said the state may use SNAP data to target workers for job training or education programs. There are about 1.1 million SNAP recipients in Washington total.
(The state has a separate food program for legal immigrants who are not eligible for SNAP, but those figures are not included here.)
The gig economy factor
One standout from the list was the high number of Uber employees receiving SNAP. The company claims that drivers in the Seattle area earn between $19 and $21 per hour before expenses, which range between $3 and $6.50 per hour. Uber did not respond to a request for comment, but workers in the rideshare industry say wages are lower than the company claims.
Takele Gobena, who works with the App-Based Drivers Association, said that driver wages have generally fallen in recent years. That’s because there are so many rideshare drivers on the road. Some drivers have further reduced income by going into debt to buy a car to drive for Uber.
He was not surprised that thousands of Uber drivers are receiving SNAP benefits.
“In 2014, the fare was much better,” Gobena said. “If you had a passenger going from downtown [Seattle] to the airport, the net earning would be between $39 and $42. Now, it’s $19 or $18. When you take out taxes and all the car expenses, it’s even less.”
Joshua Welter, an organizer with the Teamsters Local 117 in Tukwila, said that Seattle needs to create a minimum wage for rideshare drivers. New York City passed a rideshare minimum wage in August.
“It’s appalling — but unfortunately not surprising — that Uber is near the top of the list of companies whose workers are forced to rely on food stamps to feed their families,” Weller wrote in an email. “This is another reason why Seattle needs to follow New York’s lead and pass legislation to guarantee that drivers receive a living wage. The public should not be subsidizing a race to the bottom in driver pay.
Lyft also made the list at No. 29 with 458 employees getting SNAP benefits.
‘Constantly pushing us to go faster’
Last week, Amazon became the second $1 trillion company in history. Meanwhile, in massive fulfillment centers across the U.S., including in Kent, Sumner and Dupont, workers earning as little as $13.75 per hour toiled away packing boxes full of products bound for customers.
Amazon’s fulfillment centers are famous for tough working conditions. One employee told Business Insider earlier this year that workers urinated in trash cans because they were afraid they would be punished for taking time to walk to a restroom.
It appears, at least in Washington, that many Amazon workers are having a tough time outside of work, too.
The company employs about 50,000 people in Washington alone. About 2.7 percent — 1,366 — receive SNAP benefits. Amazon spokeswoman Lindsay Campbell argued that workers love the company’s benefits and career advancement opportunities.
Full-time employees at fulfillment centers earn $15 per hour, she said, a figure that includes benefits like stock and health insurance. She also criticized the state’s data as flawed because it includes season and part-time workers.
“We employ thousands of people in Washington state who chose part time or seasonal roles. The figures here are therefore misleading because they include people who only worked for Amazon for a short period of time and/or who chose to work part-time — both of these groups would almost certainly qualify for assistance if Amazon was their only job during the year. We have hundreds of full-time roles available; however, some individuals prefer part-time for the flexibility or other personal reasons,” Amazon’s statement said.
Last week, Democratic U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont introduced his “Stop BEZOS Act,” which would require large employers like Amazon and Walmart to pay back the government for public assistance. Sanders is collecting stories through his website from Amazon workers and his office shared some of those stories with Patch.
“Been on food stamps entire time I been working at Amazon. Back-breaking labor, terrible pay, and even worse conditions. No union backing. I feel like a slave and if anyone complains, they will fire you on the spot. This is the 21st century sweatshop.” said Jamal Raul, who worked at a North Carolina fulfillment center last year.
Others told Sanders’ office that the Amazon benefits are indeed good, but don’t pay the bills.
A worker at a Washington fulfillment center told Sanders’ office he makes $13.75 per hour and works full time. He’s a single father and earns about $2,200 gross per month, which puts him within the income guidelines for SNAP.
“They are constantly pushing us to go faster,” he told Sanders’ office.
A national phenomenon
In 2015, Perry was one of the authors of a study showing that 56 percent of working families in the U.S. receive some type of government assistance like Medicaid or SNAP. That number is probably still accurate in 2018, Perry said — although Medicaid enrollment has increased since then due to the Affordable Care Act.
The report blames wage stagnation in low-wage jobs as a major factor. Wages overall in the U.S. have been nearly flat over the last decade, and have not recovered to the level before the 2009 recession, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
According to Perry, one of the best ways to reduce the number of working people receiving assistance is to raise pay — an idea often thought to be tied to job loss.
But in a 2017 study, the Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education found that Seattle’s $15 minimum wage law did not erode jobs in the food service industry. Washington’s $11.50 minimum wage is the second-highest in the U.S. In July, the state unemployment rate was 4.6 percent, according to state data, a continuation of a steady decline that began in 2010.
“Wages are too low and with minimum wage we have really good evidence that minimum wage increase for low wage workers haven’t led to employment losses,” Perry said. “Raising wages is a very direct simple way of addressing the problem.”
Here’s the full list:
WALMART – 3,942
MCDONALD’S – 2,822
SAFEWAY – 2,556
FRED MEYER – 1,611
UBER – 1,419
AMAZON – 1,366
EXPRESS EMPLOYMENT – 1,248
DOLLAR TREE – 1,239
AMERICORPS – 1,034
GOODWILL – 995
LABORWORKS – 989
SUBWAY – 910
JACK IN THE BOX – 886
HOME DEPOT – 856
TACO BELL – 855
PUBLIC PARTNERSHIPS – 835
BURGER KING – 825
UPS – 766
TARGET – 711
STARBUCKS – 665
EXPRESS – 633
SSPS – 623
ROSS – 561
WENDY’S – 560
YMCA – 550
LOWES – 503
RESCARE – 500
PIZZA HUT- 480
LYFT – 458
TRUE BLUE – 425
DAIRY QUEEN – 410
WINCO – 409
COMMAND CENTER – 401
COSTCO – 393
WALGREENS – 367
RED ROBIN – 366
FEDEX – 357
LOGIC STAFFING – 347
MACY’S – 345
DENNY’S – 334
PAPA MURPHY’S – 322
TACO TIME – 310
STAFFMARK – 294
PEOPLE READY – 291
ARBY’S – 289
AEROTEK – 283
USPS – 280
ASAP – 269
KFC – 262
CSL PLASMA – 256
Photos by Neal McNamara/Patch