A giant retailer says competitors should join with it to improve the level of health insurance benefits for part-time employees.

Unions have organized a large, well-publicized campaign against Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Bentonville, Ark., to highlight weaknesses in U.S. retail workers’ health benefits.

Susan Chamber, executive vice president of the people division at Wal-Mart, talked today at a health care conference in Washington about new and previously announced steps that Wal-Mart will be taking to improve its benefits package for part-time employees and other employees.

“Keep in mind that covering part-time employees is not the norm,” Chambers said, according to a summary of her speech distributed by Wal-Mart. “We hope that others in the retail community will work with us to do the same.”

Chambers said Wal-Mart will be:

- Cutting co-payments on generic medications for conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, high cholesterol and infections to $3, from $10.

- Providing a health savings account contribution of up to $1,200 and a matching contribution of up to $1,200 starting in January 2007.

- Creating a 10% employee discount on fresh fruits, fresh vegetables and other healthy foods sold at Wal-Mart stores.

- Offering health coverage for children of all full-time and part-time employees who are eligible for employee health coverage.

- Reducing the period part-time employees must wait to become eligible for health coverage to 12 months, from 24 months.

The reduced waiting period for part-time employees and the extension of coverage to part-time employees’ children will make more than 150,000 part-time employees eligible for new or better coverage, Chambers said