* To raise pay of 500,000 U.S. workers to at least $9/hour
* Current employees to earn at least $10/hour next year
* Company expects full-year EPS of $4.70-$5.05 vs est. $5.19
* Shares fall as much as 3.2 pct (Adds analyst comment, details, updates shares)
Feb 19 (Reuters) - Wal-Mart Stores Inc, long criticized for its low wages and employee benefits, said it would spend more than $1 billion to increase pay for half a million U.S. employees this year.
The increase announced by the largest private sector employer in the United States will cover about 40 percent of its U.S. workforce, but falls far short of what some labor groups have been agitating for.
Wal-Mart said on Thursday its hourly full-time and part-time workers will earn at least $9.00 an hour, or $1.75 above the current federal minimum wage, starting in April. Current employees will earn at least $10.00 an hour by Feb. 1, 2016.
Labor groups, led by Our Walmart, have been calling for Wal-Mart to pay its workers at least $15 an hour.
Wal-Mart, which has about 1.3 million U.S. workers, has been a target of activists in the contentious debate over proposals to raise the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
The increase will mainly affect Wal-Mart's lowest-paid workers. The average hourly wage for full-time workers will rise to $13 from $12.85 this year, while the average for part-time workers will rise to $10 from $9.48, Wal-Mart said on a media call.
"Employee pay increases are the right move for long-term sustainability ... and shows a meaningful change in strategy," Stifel, Nicolaus & Co analyst David Schick wrote in a note.
However, Wal-Mart's shares fell as much as 3.2 percent to $83.51 in morning trading as investors weighed the impact of the wage hikes on profitability in the short term.
The $1 billion program includes changes to staff training and scheduling to help employees advance their careers.
DOLLAR WEIGHS ON OUTLOOK
The world's largest retailer reported a better-than- expected fourth-quarter profit as shoppers spent more of their savings from lower U.S. gas prices at the company's stores.
Same-store sales in the United States rose 1.5 percent. Analysts on average had forecast an increase of 0.7 percent, according to Consensus Metrix.
Wal-Mart, however, cut its sales forecast for the year ending January 2016, citing a strong dollar.
The retailer said it now expected sales to increase 1-2 percent, below its previous forecast of 2-4 percent.
It also forecast earnings of $4.70-$5.05 per share, below the average analyst estimate of $5.19.
Net profit attributable to Wal-Mart rose 12 percent to $4.97 billion, or $1.53 per share, for the quarter.
Excluding items, Wal-Mart earned $1.58 per share, according to Thomson Reuters I/B/E/S.
Total revenue rose 1.4 percent to $131.57 billion.
Analysts on average had expected earnings of $1.53 per share on revenue of $132.35 billion.
(Reporting by Sruthi Ramakrishnan in Bengaluru and Nathan Layne in Chicago; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty)