NEW YORK — Starbucks says its workers can now have four years of tuition covered for an online college degree from Arizona State University instead of just two, marking the latest sign that companies are rethinking their treatment of low-wage workers.

The Seattle-based coffee chain says the decision is part of its commitment to “redefine the role and responsibility of a public company.”

The expansion of the program comes as employers increasingly seek to win favor with customers by cultivating their images for being socially responsible. Last week, McDonald’s also announced it was expanding a college tuition assistance program to workers at its more than 14,300 U.S. stores. At its company-owned stores, McDonald’s said workers would get a pay bump and be able to earn paid time off as well.

Among the other major employers that have announced wage hikes recently are Wal-Mart Stores and Gap Inc.

The public declarations of improved pay and benefits come as the growing income disparities between the richest Americans and everyone else have become a major political issue. Last year, more than a dozen states and multiple cities raised their local minimum wages, according to the National Employment Law Project. And since late 2012, ongoing protests by labor organizers have highlighted the financial hardships of fast-food and retail workers, and generated negative publicity for McDonald’s and Wal-Mart in particular.

“People understand the glaring differences between those at the top, and workers who aren’t making that much,” said Tsedeye Gebreselassie, a staff attorney at the National Employment Law Project, which gets funding from unions and has supported the protests for pay of $15 an hour and unionization.


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