Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wants large employers such as Amazon, Walmart and McDonald's to fully cover the cost of food stamps, public housing, Medicaid and other federal assistance received by their employees. The goal, he said, is to force corporations to pay a living wage and curb roughly $150 billion in taxpayer dollars that go to funding federal assistance programs for low-wage workers each year.
Sanders plans to introduce a bill in the Senate on Sept. 5 that would impose a 100% tax on government benefits received by workers at companies with 500 or more employees. For example, if an Amazon employee receives $300 in food stamps, Amazon would be taxed $300.
"At a time of massive wealth and income inequality, the gap between the very rich and everyone else continues to grow wider," Sanders said.
Labor groups say that gap is particularly pronounced at the nation's largest and most profitable companies, including Walmart, which has roughly 2.2 million workers, and Amazon, which employs more than 575,000.
Public records obtained by the New Food Economy, a nonprofit news organization, show that thousands of Amazon employees rely on the government's Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program to make ends meet. As many as 1 in 3 Amazon employees in Arizona — and about 1 in 10 in Pennsylvania and Ohio — receive food stamps, according to an April report by the New Food Economy, based in New York.
Amazon spokeswoman Melanie Etches said the figures were misleading. "They include people who only worked for Amazon for a short period of time and/or who chose to work part-time," she said in a statement. "We have hundreds of full-time roles available, however, some prefer part-time for the flexibility or other personal reasons."
Sanders' bill would be an extension of a petition he started Tuesday calling on the world's richest man, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, to pay workers a living wage and to improve working conditions at Amazon warehouses. As of Thursday morning, it had 105,000 signatures. (Bezos also the owns the Washington Post.)
"While Mr. Bezos is the most egregious example, the Walton family of Walmart and many other billionaire-owned profitable corporations also enrich themselves off taxpayer assistance while paying their workers poverty-level wages," Sanders said. Representatives for Walmart did not respond to requests for comment.
Bezos, who founded Amazon in 1994, has seen his net worth steadily climb in recent months as the stock market hits record highs. He is worth $157 billion, up from $99 billion a year ago, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. The median Amazon worker, meanwhile, was paid $28,446 last year, according to company filings. (The federal poverty level for a family of four is $24,600.)
Amazon spokeswoman Etches said her company had created more than 130,000 new jobs "with highly competitive pay and full benefits" in the last year. She added that the average hourly wage for full-time workers in U.S. warehouses is more than $15 an hour, when stock and incentive bonuses are factored in.
"We encourage anyone to compare our median pay and benefits to other retailers," Etches said.
The company did not say how many of its workers are part-time, but said it hires thousands of temporary workers during peak holiday times.