Wal-Mart Workers Win Wage Suit

By Amy Joyce
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 13, 2006

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. violated Pennsylvania labor laws by forcing hourly employees to work through breaks and beyond their shifts without overtime pay, a jury decided yesterday.

Lawyers for the employees said the decision could result in $62 million or more in damages.

The lawsuit, brought by two employees on behalf of almost 187,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees, claimed that the company made workers in Pennsylvania miss more than 33 million rest breaks from 1998 to 2001. At least 57 other wage-and-hour cases have been filed across the United States against the world's largest retailer, and many of them are awaiting class-action certification, according to company filings.

"I think this proves that Wal-Mart's sweatshop mind-set persists," said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman with WakeUp Wal-Mart, a United Food and Commercial Workers Union-backed group. "There is some point where Wal-Mart will have to listen and it's got to treat its workers with respect and fairness."

Michael Donovan, a lawyer for the employees, would not comment until damages are awarded. He expects that to happen today. In court, the lawyers argued that the company denied breaks to cut labor costs and increase productivity.

"We take matters very seriously when associates say they have been mistreated in any way. However, because the jury is still in deliberation, it would not be appropriate to comment on the matter until a final decision has been made," said Sarah Clark, a spokeswoman for Wal-Mart.

Neal Manne, Wal-Mart's attorney, argued that the company properly paid its employees and that the lead plaintiffs were among a small group of disgruntled workers, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer's coverage of the trial.

Company officials said records appeared to show that workers who did not have breaks did so because they chose not to, or did not sign out, according to news reports.

The company has been trying repair its image after critics cast negative light on the company, claiming it pays poverty wages and offers few benefits.

The case is one of several class-action wage-and-hour suits against the company to go to trial. In December, a jury awarded $172 million to about 116,000 current and former Wal-Mart and Sam's Club workers in California who claimed that they were illegally denied lunch breaks. Wal-Mart is appealing the verdict.

In 2002, a federal jury in Oregon found that Wal-Mart employees were forced to work off the clock and awarded back pay to 83 workers. In 2004, Wal-Mart settled a similar lunch break case in Colorado for $50 million.

One of the pending cases, which accuses the company of paying men more than women nationally, is the largest private employer civil rights class action in history. Wal-Mart has asked an appeals court to overturn the class-action status of the case.

The Pennsylvania case is larger than the California case in that it covers more employees and involves off-the-clock work, missed rest breaks and missed meal breaks. The jury in the six-week trial in the Court of Common Pleas in Philadelphia found in favor of Wal-Mart on the missed-meal claim.

Employees said they were pressured by managers to cut meals short and skip breaks. Two cashiers said they were locked in the store after it closed to restock merchandise.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.

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