Wal-Mart Asks Employees to Counter Critics

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) on Friday used its annual meeting to tout worker benefits and called on employees to counter critics who say the world's biggest retailer mistreats its staff.

Wal-Mart, whose roughly 1.3 million U.S. employees make it the largest private-sector employer, has been called the most sued company in America and faces dozens of cases alleging wage-and-hour violations.

"We're under scrutiny like we never have been before, and we've got to tell our story like we never have before," Betsy Reithemeyer, vice president of corporate affairs, told a cheering crowd of thousands of Wal-Mart employees.

"Don't let someone else define us," she said. "Tell our story better."

Later on Friday, the retailer plans to announce unspecified "diversity, compliance and wage initiatives."

Critics contend that nonunion Wal-Mart drives down wages across the retail industry, offers poor health-care benefits, and forces competitors out of business.

The retailer is also under federal investigation in connection with last year's roundup of undocumented workers at several Wal-Mart stores.

But Susan Chambers, executive vice president of benefits, noted that a Wal-Mart store that opened in New York last year received some 15,000 applications for 400 jobs, which she said shows that people are eager to work at Wal-Mart.

"Fifteen-thousand people don't stand in line for bad jobs," she said.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retailer has spent the last few months trying to repair its image through an advertising campaign showcasing happy employees, noting that most of its salaried managers were promoted from the hourly ranks.

Employees have also written letters-to-the-editor to dispute negative news articles, and normally reticent executives have spoken at events including a National Retail Federation (search) convention.

Wal-Mart shares were up 26 cents at $56.86 on the New York Stock Exchange (search) on Friday. The shares have ranged between $50.60 and $61.31 in the last 12 months.