Five Wal-Mart associates, buoyed by dozens of cheering supporters from the labor movement, spoke out at a state Capitol press event today. Chief among the criticisms: Health insurance at the retail behemoth that is prohibitively expensive and full of holes. The company contends it is no different from any other business grappling with high health care costs.Adrienne Ward makes $9.15 an hour, pays $80 a month for insurance, but said Wal-Mart health insurance won’t cover her glaucoma eyedrops. They cost $73 for a three week supply. Basic expenses are already a struggle, she said, as the rent gets paid late every month.

Geno Pfeiffer, an associate at the Wallingford Wal-Mart, told the gasping audience that the company’s health insurance initially cost $180 per pay period, ie. $3688 a year- ten percent of his gross income. But even though Pfeiffer said the plan advertised free shots for his children, he still had to pay out of pocket for the $160 wellness visit to receive the shot. Pfeiffer’s monthly $300 prescription costs weren’t covered either.When he inquired as to a health plan better suited to his family needs, Pfeiffer said the cost would have amounted to $9100 per year, “much more than ten percent of my income.” Geno Pfeiffer (left): “The truth is they don’t really cover much at all.”To Wal-Mart, events like the one today are part of a well-funded, well-organized campaign to mislead the public. “These battles with critics and governments are contributing to the decline of Wal-Mart’s overall reputation,” reads a memorandum to Wal-Mart’s board, distributed at the press conference by the retailer’s Connecticut lobbyists- Gaffney Bennett and Associates.“We have not effectively communicated the generosity of our healthcare benefits to the general public; instead we have thus far allowed our critics to frame the debate,” the memo reads. However, the company does acknowledge that “our critics are correct in some of their observations. Specifically, our coverage is expensive for low-income families, and Wal-Mart has a significant percentage of Associates and their children on public assistance.“The company, though, argued critics unfairly compare them to companies that are not retailers.“Wal-Mart’s critics, however, hold it to a ‘large company’ standard, not a retailer standard,” the memo reads. “Despite the difference in industry economics, critics believe we should behave more like a GM or a Microsoft than a Target or a Sears.“But event organizers had a handy rebuttal to this line of attack: Janice Williams, who works at Stop & Shop- another retailer. She reported much cheaper health insurance at the grocer, and premium pay for working Sundays. But the Wal-Mart effect is having a corrosive impact on benefits at her company.“Wal-Mart’s bad business practices…negatively affect hard working people in every corner of retail,” Williams said. Outside the press event, Senate Minority Leader Lou DeLuca (R-Woodbury) stood ready to give the pro-business response. He repeated Wal-Mart’s line about being unfairly compared to manufacturers, not retailers. “Nothing is perfect. They’re not perfect,” DeLuca said. Lou DeLuca: Friend to Wal-Mart.But Wal-Mart is simply trying to provide low cost merchandise to its customers, DeLuca said. “They’re going to have to cut costs somewhere, and usually in almost any business your highest costs are your employees.“When told that a worker from Stop & Shop- another retailer- talked about the favorable benefits at her company, DeLuca responded that the grocer is unionized. So does that mean union representation would bring better benefits for Wal-Mart workers?“That may or may not happen,” DeLuca said, depending on the contract negotiated. “But I can guarantee this: If Wal-Mart was a union shop, they wouldn’t have such low prices.”