NEW YORK — Wal-Mart is giving raises to the vast majority of its U.S. employees as part of the world’s largest retailer’s previously announced investment in its workforce. The move comes as it seeks to hold onto workers in an increasingly competitive market.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. on Wednesday said more than 1.2 million U.S. hourly workers will get wage increases on Feb. 20. The company, the largest U.S. private employer with 1.4 million total workers, also said it will provide free, basic short-term disability to full-time hourly workers. And it will start allowing workers to accrue paid time off as they earn it.

The moves mark the biggest changes Wal-Mart has made in its efforts to offer better wages and benefits. They come as the company faces pressure from labor-back groups who have criticized the company for its treatment of its workers.

Last February, Wal-Mart announced that it would raise base employee wages for 500,000 workers to $9 an hour last year, with plans to move it to $10 per hour, next month. The company also said new entry-level workers hired after Jan. 1, 2016 would start at $9 per hour, but move to at least $10 an hour after completing a six-month training program. Then last June, Wal-Mart said it would raise starting wages for more than 100,000 U.S. department managers.

In total, Wal-Mart’s CEO Doug McMillon said in October that last year’s investment in wage increases, along with improved training, cost $1.2 billion. McMillon also said the company expects to pump $1.5 billion in to its workforce this year.

Wal-Mart has maintained that if it keeps its workers happy, they will serve customers better. That will lead to higher sales. Retaining and attracting workers is critical as a stronger labor market offers workers more opportunities to jump around.

“The competition for talent is strong,” said Craig Rowley, global leader of consultancy Hay Group’s retail practice. “It’s strong because there are fewer people to hire.”

Rowley says the turnover rate – the percentage of part-time workers who leave within a year – is now 67 percent for the retail industry, up from 50 percent during the recession.

Wal-Mart has already seen sales perk up in its U.S. business as customer experience improves in the stores. But those investments are also coming at a cost. Wal-Mart said last October that earnings for the year, starting next month will be down as much as 12 percent, in large part due to the investment in its workforce. But Wal-Mart has been willing to take a hit.

“We are very clear that if we make sure our associates are being treated fairly, if they are rewarded simply and clearly, we will have a better business,” said Judith McKenna, chief operating officer for Wal-Mart’s U.S. division.

As a result of the latest pay increase taking effect next month, the average full-time hourly wage at Wal-Mart stores will be $13.38, up from $13. For part-time workers, the hourly wage will be $10.58, up from $10.


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