MILTON — Nationwide, Walmart employees earning the starting hourly wage will receive a raise to $11, according to a company press release.

In addition, Walmart plans to expand maternity and parental leave benefits. The store also will provide financial assistance to hourly and salaried associates adopting a child — $5,000 per child.

Further, various one-time bonuses are in Walmart’s plans, topping at $1,000 for associates with at least 20 years of service.

These are welcome changes for Santa Rosa County, Economic Development Director Shannon Ogletree says, but they present challenges to area businesses.

Other big businesses may have to increase their wages to acquire and retain employees, according to Ogletree.

"I think it will challenge others to increase their average rate also to compete with the big-box store," Ogletree said.

The challenge for Ogletree may be bringing new business to the county. Call centers have considered moving to the area, he said.

"They might be saying (their starting wage will be) $10.50 an hour while the big-box store is paying the same rate," he said. "Now, I’ll say Walmart is (paying $11 an hour), but (the wage increase) will have that affect on all communities."

Small businesses may have trouble competing for employees since that may not be able to offer the equivalent of Walmart’s new wages and benefits. But overall, Ogletree sees it as a potential for growth in the workforce.

"The labor force is tight already," Ogletree said. "The latest number on our unemployment rate is 3.6 percent for November. Anybody that wants a job, they can get a job. It may encourage others to get into the workforce and increase labor participation in Santa Rosa County and the state, the nation." 

Walmart cited federal tax reform for the ability to increase employee wages. The new wage will go into effect Feb. 17 with more investment details by Feb. 20 quarterly results.