Tuesday, September 20, 2005
OAKLAND, Calif., Sept. 19 -- Lawyers representing about 116,000 former and current Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employees in California told a jury Monday that the world's largest retailer systematically and illegally denied workers lunch breaks.
The suit in Alameda County Superior Court is among about 40 cases nationwide alleging workplace violations against Wal-Mart and the first to go to trial. The company settled a lawsuit in Colorado for $50 million that contains similar allegations to California's class action. The company also is accused of paying men more than women in a federal lawsuit pending in San Francisco federal court.
The workers in the class-action suit are owed more than $66 million plus interest, attorney Fred Furth told the 12 jurors and four alternates in an opening statement.
Wal-Mart declined to give an opening statement, reserving its right to give one later. Its lawyers also declined to comment.
Nine jurors must side with the plaintiffs for them to prevail. Millions of dollars also are sought to punish the company for the alleged wrongdoing.
The case concerns a 2001 state law, which is among the nation's most worker-friendly. Employees who work at least six hours must have a 30-minute, unpaid lunch break. If they do not get that, the law requires that they get an additional hour of pay.
In court documents, the Bentonville, Ark., company says workers did not demand penalty wages on a timely basis. Wal-Mart says that it did pay some employees their penalty pay and that, in 2003, most workers agreed to waive their meal periods as the law allows.
The company also says some violations were minor, such as demanding employees punch back in from lunch and work during their meal breaks. In essence, workers were provided a shorter meal period than the law allows.
On Tuesday, as many as three plaintiffs are expected to testify in a trial that could last weeks.