Walmart, Disney among top 12 employers that laid off thousands during the pandemic, House inquiry finds

Key Points
  • Twelve of the nation's largest employers, including Walmart, Cisco and Chevron, laid off thousands during the pandemic, a House subcommittee survey found.
  • Hourly workers without access to paid leave benefits were most likely to quit, according to the report.
  • The subcommittee recommends a universal paid-leave structure and better data recording under the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to mitigate the effects of the pandemic.
People leave the Disneyland Resort on Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure's reopening day amidst the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Anaheim, California, April 30, 2021.
Mario Anzuoni | Reuters

The nation's largest employers collectively laid off more than 100,000 workers during the Covid pandemic, according to a report released Tuesday by a House subcommittee.

Hourly workers were hit particularly hard. Not only were they more likely to get fired in 2019, 2020 and 2021 than salaried employees, but they were also more likely to quit and less likely to be promoted, congressional investigators found. The phenomenon disproportionately affected women, workers of color and older workers.

The findings are part of a staff report from the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis, which detailed staffing inequities at 12 large corporations: AT&T, Berkshire Hathaway, Boeing, Chevron, Cisco, Citigroup, Comcast, Exxon Mobil, Oracle, Salesforce, Walmart and Walt Disney.

"Today's report demonstrates that the inequities observed during this crisis are deeply rooted in our economy and have persisted throughout the pandemic," Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., chair of the subcommittee, said in a statement. "These findings underscore the urgent need to address inequality as we continue to work to achieve a strong, sustainable, and equitable economic future." 

Salaried workers at some of these companies often faired better than their lower-paid hourly counterparts. For example, Walmart's hourly staff quit or were fired at higher rates and received raises and promotions at lower rates than salaried workers 80% of the time, according to the report.

"Walmart had some of the largest racial inequities of the surveyed companies when it came to employment outcomes," the report said.

Black hourly workers at Walmart were also reportedly fired twice as often as white hourly workers in 2020, at 19.7% versus 10.4%, according to the findings. Members of this group were also fired more than three times as frequently, 19.7%, as Black salaried employees at 6.3% and almost five times as frequently, 19.7%, as white salaried employees at 4%.

The report also said Asian salaried workers at Walmart were promoted at half the rate of their white counterparts.

Despite those inequities, the company laid off relatively fewer people during the pandemic compared with other large employers.

Walmart let go of 1,240 employees during the pandemic — far less than the 32,000 laid off by Disney and 26,000 workers who lost their jobs at Boeing, according to data compiled by the subcommittee.

But the retailer said at the time that they offered employees who were laid off another job within the company. Walmart also hired more than 500,000 new associates in 2020 to meet increasing demands during the pandemic, the company said at the time.

Cisco and Chevron laid off 3,500 and 4,500, respectively, while Exxon Mobil handed 14,000 employees their pink slips. The remaining companies let go between 1,000 and 13,000 of their employees.

Pandemic-related business closures substantially affected layoffs. Disney was forced to close its domestic theme parks for the entirety of the third quarter of 2020, resulting in a $5 million loss for the company.

Layoffs also affected older workers at a higher rate than younger workers. Workers 50 and older were laid off at double, triple, or even quintuple the rate of younger workers, and younger workers quit or retired at double or triple the rate of older workers, the subcommittee found.

Benefits were a factor in employee retention. One company lost 28.8% of male hourly workers and 35.5% of female hourly workers in 2020, citing a lack of paid sick leave. In comparison, 10.2% of male hourly workers and 12.4% of female hourly workers with access to sick leave quit that year.

But the dire outlook for hourly workers was only true for some companies during the pandemic, the subcommittee found. Hourly employees at Cisco reportedly did better than salaried workers 40% of the time — defined as retaining their job, getting a raise or a promotion. They faired worse than salaried workers just 20% of the time.

Chevron and Exxon saw similar trends. Chevron's hourly workers did better than salaried workers more than half the time, while Exxon's hourly workers fared better than salaried workers 40% of the time, according to the report.

Family and caregiving leave also encouraged retention. Workers who had access to and took the leave quit at a lower rate than workers that did not over 86% of the time, according to the report. These workers also received raises at a higher rate than workers who did not take leave more than 87% of the time.

Data for LGBTQ+ workers was limited, the subcommittee found, because only one company tracked data for the group for the three years covered in the survey.

The subcommittee's report is based on a December 2021 survey of 12 of the nation's largest employers that also reported significant layoffs in 2020. Initial findings released in May revealed the pandemic-era economy disproportionately harmed women working for hourly wages.

Female hourly workers did worse than their male counterparts about 30% of the time between 2019 and 2021. The gap peaked at 39.7% compared with both salaried and hourly men in 2020.

In its final report, the subcommittee said that benefits, including paid leave, might have influenced inequitable outcomes among hourly and salaried employees at the companies surveyed.

For example, Walmart generally did not allow hourly workers to use paid time off benefits until after 90 days of employment. Other leave benefits, such as maternity and parental leave, were not accessible to these workers until after 12 months.

Comparatively, companies like Chevron and Cisco made no distinction in access to benefits between hourly and salaried workers during the time of the survey and either did not require a waiting period or applied the same eligibility standards to all employees.

Clyburn said that the findings "highlight the critical importance of enacting a national, universal paid-leave program that gives every American access to these crucial workplace benefits."

"American workers deserve to know that, no matter what crisis they may face, they will not have to choose between keeping their families fed and caring for themselves and their loved ones," he added.

Ten companies referenced in the report did not respond to CNBC with comments before publication. A spokesperson for Citigroup told CNBC that the company hired more people between 2019 and 2021 than it laid off.

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC.