Wal-Mart Bias Case Moves Forward
1.6 Million Women May Join Class-Action Suit
By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 23, 2004; Page A01
A federal judge in San Francisco ruled yesterday that a sex-discrimination lawsuit against Wal-Mart Stores Inc. could proceed to trial as a class action because of evidence the nation's largest employer paid female workers less and gave them fewer promotions than men.
The suit could include as many as 1.6 million current and former female Wal-Mart employees, in what would be the largest private employer civil rights case in U.S. history.
U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins found that attorneys for the six named women who filed suit in 2001 "present largely uncontested descriptive statistics which show that women working in Wal-Mart stores are paid less than men in every region, that pay disparities exist in most job categories, that the salary gap widens over time even for men and women hired into the same jobs at the same time, that women take longer to enter into management positions, and that the higher one looks in the organization, the lower the percentage of women."
The judge said his decision to certify the case as a class action "should not be construed in any manner as a ruling on the merits or the probable outcome of the case." He noted the case falls near the 50th anniversary of the landmark racial discrimination case Brown v. Board of Education. The anniversary, he wrote in an 84-page ruling, "serves as a reminder of the importance of the courts in addressing the denial of equal treatment under the law wherever and by whomever it occurs."
Wal-Mart said it would appeal. "Let's keep in mind that today's ruling has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case. Judge Jenkins is simply saying he thinks it meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action. We strongly disagree with his decision and will seek an appeal," the company said in a statement.
Wal-Mart officials declined interviews. Its lawyers had argued to the judge that the statistical differences were due to differing job aspirations and interests between men and women that exist in the general labor force and thus can't be blamed on the company. They also argued that the case shouldn't be a class action because managers in the company's more than 3,000 stores, which include Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores, had considerable autonomy.
Legal experts said that because of the appeal, it will likely be a year or more before the case comes to trial.
Yesterday's decision comes at a time when Wal-Mart has been on the defensive on several fronts. A federal grand jury is investigating the company after federal raids found illegal immigrants being used on cleaning crews in 61 stores in 21 states. It also is being sued for allegedly faking timecards of employees so they would not be paid overtime. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said it has sued Wal-Mart 48 times since 1990, mostly for discriminatory hiring practices, winning $8.6 million and changes in policy and training.
Unions have been trying to organize Wal-Mart workers, citing their low pay and poor benefits. In recent months, the company has run television ads depicting happy workers extolling its benefit plans to counter the unions and surveys that found consumers mistrusted Wal-Mart's labor practices and its impact on local communities.
Wal-Mart has recently taken steps to change its employment practices. At its annual shareholder meeting earlier this month, chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr. said he would cut executive bonuses if the company fails to meet diversity goals. The company will reduce executive bonuses by up to 7.5 percent this year and 15 percent next year if the chain fails to promote women and minorities in proportion to the number applying for management positions.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company