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Shoppers leave a Wal-Mart Neighborhood Market in Dallas, The company is planning to grant wage increases to 1.2 million U.S. hourly workers next month.

NEW YORK >> The vast majority of Wal-Mart's U.S. employees will get raises as part of the world's largest retailer's previously announced commitment to invest in its workforce.

The move comes as Wal-Mart faces pressure from labor-backed groups and seeks to retain workers in a tighter labor force.

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, which is 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 to 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.

Major investment


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, although at the time he did not give details of other raises and perks to be offered.

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. Last year, before the changes, the average full-time hourly wage was $12.85 and $9.48 for part-time. Wal-Mart declined to provide the average hourly wages for Sam's Club workers.

Those wages for Wal-Mart stores are still below the $14.95 average that hourly retail workers in a non-supervisory role earn, according to government data that includes people who work at auto dealers and other outlets that would likely pay more than discounters like Wal-Mart. But Wal-Mart's entry level pay is above the $9.26 average hourly pay for cashiers and low level retail sales staff, according to the Hay Group's survey of 140 retailers with annual sales of $500 million.

Wal-Mart's moves have met some criticism. Wal-Mart's initial pay triggered complaints from workers who felt that the raises weren't spread out evenly. Many of the new employees were getting increases in pay, making their pay closer to other workers who had been at Wal-Mart for a long time.

"We did hear from some associates who did feel left out last time, but we specifically did it to reward associates in a fair, consistent and transparent way," said Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg.