By Jim Stinson, Post-Tribune staff writer

Some big-box retailers in Northwest Indiana don't need a law - like the one Chicago almost passed - to pay a living wage.

Costco, Circuit City and Menards are among the highest-paying major retailers in the region, without a mandate from lawmakers.

Minimally experienced workers can start working at those companies for $10 per hour, $9 per hour and more than $8 per hour, respectively.

The world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart, doesn't offer the region's highest retail wage to start, but an employee can eventually average more than $10 per hour there as a full-time associate, Wal-Mart corporate officials said.

Bringing up the rear are Meijer, Staples and Babies R Us, all of which quoted starting hourly wages at or above $6 per hour.

In Chicago, the City Council narrowly passed a living wage law that would require retailers that make more than $1 billion in annual sales and have stores that are at least 90,000 square feet to pay workers at least $10 an hour plus $3 in fringe benefits by mid-2010.

The law was scuttled, however, when Mayor Richard Daley vetoed it and a second council vote didn't garner enough votes to override the veto.

Trying to find what big-box retailers pay is a tricky matter. Most of the groups that study retail pay don't have this data broken down at the county level. Corporations also hesitated to say what starting pay is, although Wal-Mart officials said its average full-time hourly wage in Indiana is $10.15 per hour.

To get around this, the Post-Tribune went to stores and inquired about pay. It was found that pay at retail giants - so-called big-box stores - is more than the $5.15 minimum wage that Indiana law requires, widely ranging from about $6 per hour at the Merrillville Meijer and the Valparaiso Staples, to the top-tier starting quote we received at Merrillville Costco - $10 per hour to start. Menards tops that, technically. The company starts its employees out at more than $8 but adds a weekend-hours bonus of more than $2 per hour.

The quotes do not reflect average state wages at each retailer, nor do they reflect each store's average hourly wage for full-time workers. They also exclude benefits.

Retailers hesitate to discuss salary

Most retail company officials spoke only generally about their benefits.

Home Depot officials declined to say what they pay in Indiana or nationwide, saying experience is factored in and pay is competitive with regional markets. Home Depot usually pays above the retail market median in all markets, according to Yancy Casey, spokesman for the nation's No. 2 retailer, based in Atlanta.

The company also allows discount stock sales and success-sharing bonuses, Casey said.

Home Depot has 2,087 stores in the United States and 25 in Indiana.

At Wal-Mart, the average wage for regular hourly full-time associates in Indiana is $10.15 per hour as of August 2006, according to Jami Arms, spokesperson for Wal-Mart Stores Inc. In Illinois, the rate is $10.41 per hour. Neither figure includes benefits, which Arms said could include 401(k) and health insurance.

Pay at big-box stores often is a bone of contention with advocates of "living wages."

But some retailers design their pay to retain workers over the long term.

"It really depends on what you're doing in the store," said Dawn Bryant, spokeswoman for Minneapolis-based Best Buy. "We pay a little above the going market. Our entire reward structure has everything to do with ... keeping (workers)."

No fight here, but concern

Some communities in Northwest Indiana also are fighting over big-box retail units, but here the battle is not over pay.

While big-box developments have been rejected in Chesterton and stifled in Crown Point, there is no shortage of the stores in Northwest Indiana. And what they pay and contribute to the local economy is an issue of contention among a growing number of government leaders.

Crown Point Mayor Dan Klein said some big-box retailers pay so little it is a social justice issue the city could not ignore.

"What value do they bring to a community?" asked Klein, a Republican. "When it starts to affect quality of life and community, I don't agree with it."

Big-box retailers appear to be listening to the concerns.

Wal-Mart established WalMartFacts.com to counter critics, and in August the retailer increased its start rates at 1,200 stores.

But Klein and the Crown Point City Council did not focus on pay at big-box stores. Klein did not take a position on the national issue of minimum wage and said he did not oppose retailers' right to do business. City leaders said they were more concerned about a Wal-Mart or Target opening in their city, duplicating nearby stores and saturating the market.

But if big-box stores do make their way to Crown Point, Klein would like to help make the pick. Klein said he and other Crown Point residents have made inquiries to Ikea, which has two stores in the Chicago suburbs in Illinois.

What is a big box?

Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the "big box" as a store "relating to, or being a large chain store having a boxlike structure."

The Chicago City Council, for purposes of its now-vetoed living-wage ordinance, labeled a big-box store as part of a chain that grosses $1 billion annually and contains at least 90,000 square feet of interior space.

And there is the Crown Point standard.

Klein and the City Council successfully passed an ordinance calling for a zoning special exception to retail stores with 65,000 square feet or larger.

Meanwhile, the momentum of big-box retail spread seems unstoppable.

Even Communist-run Vietnam is offering big boxes. Its Hanoi BigC store, owned by foreign investors, opened earlier this year. According to a Vietnamese news service, leaders hope the competition will drive down prices at more expensive, locally owned stores.

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