Pia Sarkar, Chronicle Staff Writer, reports:

For all the criticism that Wal-Mart receives for its low wages and minimal health benefits, the retail giant says more than 11,000 people in the Bay Area are clamoring to get a job at its new Oakland store.

The country’s largest employer plans to welcome customers into its 148, 000-square-foot store on Edgewater Drive next Wednesday, and it says it already has filled 350 of its 400 openings.

Wal-Mart has accepted more than 11,000 applications from Bay Area job seekers, marking the largest volume of interest it has received at any of its Northern California stores, said Wal-Mart spokeswoman Cynthia Lin.

“I needed a job ASAP, and they had their doors open,” said Virginia Ford, 19, of Oakland, who had applied for 25 jobs in three months before she landed one as a cashier at Wal-Mart in Oakland on Tuesday.

Stephen Levy, an economist for the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy, said the pent-up demand for work reflects the Bay Area’s slow recovery from the dot-com crash.

“There’s still a lot of people who were put out of work in the last four years who still don’t have a job,” Levy said. The unemployment rate in Alameda and Contra Costa counties climbed to 5.1 percent in June, up from 4.6 percent the month before but still below the state’s unemployment rate of 5.4 percent, according to the latest statistics from the California Employment Development Department.

But some economists say those numbers do not tell the full story about the job market. To be counted as unemployed, a person must have sought a job within the past four weeks and must be completely out of work. Wanting a job but not looking for one takes a person out of the labor force and out of the unemployment-rate calculation.

The Bay Area also has lost hundreds of jobs to outsourcing and offshoring, compounded by all the jobs that never came back after the local economy collapsed.

“It’s not about Wal-Mart — it’s about the rest of the labor market,” Levy said. “If the rest of the labor market was strong, you wouldn’t have 11, 000 people applying for 400 jobs.”

During the dot-com boom, Levy said, businesses like Starbucks bumped up wages to recruit employees in the middle of a hot job market. But now the situation has reversed, and more people are willing to take whatever they can get.

“It’s simply a comment on how many people are willing to apply for that kind of job now,” Levy said of the surge of applications at Wal-Mart.

For its part, Wal-Mart — currently embroiled in a fight to break up a class-action discrimination suit by female employees — has been pleased with the turnout of candidates who are interested in working for the company. Right now, it is still looking to fill positions for evening sales associates, overnight sales associates, cashiers and unloaders at its Oakland store. The company offers an average hourly wage in the Bay Area of $10.82. It says it employs more than 66,000 people at its 150 stores in California.

On Tuesday, Wal-Mart workers gathered together for their daily meeting filled with motivational speeches and a Wal-Mart cheer, which involves a few loud hoots and a wiggle.

Yolanda Williams, 48, of Oakland, started her job at the store five weeks ago, helping to set it up. On Tuesday, she was setting up the lingerie department, which she heads as a manager.

Williams previously worked as a senior computer operator for the city of Oakland and a cook at the city’s jail before it closed. She said she is happy to be working for Wal-Mart.

“I felt I was lucky because I’ve never been a manager in retail,” she said.

Lisa Jackson, 34, a Wal-Mart employee for nine years, working as a cashier, truck unloader and overnight stock clerk, is now a manager of the electronics department at the new Oakland store.

“I love my job,” Jackson said. “I like the people, and I love what I do.”

Labor organizations have long bashed Wal-Mart for offering what they see as meager health benefits and paltry wages that force employees to work multiple jobs or apply for public assistance.

“Wal-Mart is one of the largest employers in the world — they have to be a model for the society they are promoting,” said Wendell Chin, coalition director for the Central Labor Council of Alameda County. “If they don’t provide a decent lifestyle, it’s scary.”

A study by the UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education last August found that Wal-Mart workers received lower wages than any other retail workers and were less likely to have health benefits. In addition, reliance by Wal-Mart employees on public assistance programs cost taxpayers an estimated $86 million annually, including $32 million in health-related expenses and $54 million in other assistance.

Chin said jobs at Wal-Mart are a dead-end cycle that keeps people in poverty. Although he does not blame anyone for applying for work there, he said that Wal-Mart owes it to them to provide them a way to make a decent living.

“It’s not just about jobs,” Chin said. “It’s (having) a good job that you can raise a family on.”

For people like Melvin Brown, any job would be a blessing.

“I think this is a good place to work,” said Brown, 52, who dropped off his application on Tuesday for an overnight maintenance position. “It seems like everybody gets along well with everybody.”

Brown has been looking for a job for six months. He said he could live with the wages that Wal-Mart is offering.

“It’s best to accept what you can get,” he said. “You start low and aim high. First you gotta get your foot in the door.”

E-mail Pia Sarkar at .

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