Workers' complaints dull Wal-Mart's image

Lawsuits: Across the country, employees say they felt obligated to work off the clock, sometimes locked inside stores.

January 12, 2003|By Jean Marbella | Jean Marbella,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SAGINAW, Mich. - They had already clocked out for the day, one employee said, but an announcement over the PA system called them back: We need help tidying the purse department. Another employee said she would punch out for lunch but be asked to stop during her break and compare prices at a competing store or pick up some office supplies.

The complaints may seem like so much petty grumbling - 15 minutes of off-the-clock work here, an abbreviated lunch there. But when the company accused of incrementally shorting its workers of wages is Wal-Mart, the country's largest employer, with more than 1 million "associates" nationwide, the potential for free labor could add up to untold millions of dollars - out of the pockets of people who are already at the bottom of the pay scale and can least afford it.

That the phenomenally profitable retailer would make such nickel-and-dime intrusions on their time was bad enough, employees say, but what particularly rankled was how they would then have to ask over and over again simply to be paid for the extra work.

"I just got tired of asking," said Nadia Zufelt, testifying in a lawsuit she and other Michigan workers filed here against the world's biggest company, demanding compensation. "You feel like you're begging after a while."

"It was kind of a shock to think, is this happening to everyone who worked there?" Lindsay Armantrout said.

The two women are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, one of about 30 similar cases that former employees have filed against Wal-Mart across the country in recent years. The suits charge that employees regularly had to work off the clock, and were sometimes even locked in their stores and prevented from leaving before finishing extra tasks.

Together, they cast a shadow on Wal-Mart's otherwise glowing economic performance - it is the darling of both consumers who flock to its stores for name-brand merchandise at low prices, and of Wall Street, where the chain's high profit margins and unparalleled growth make it the envy of its industry and a star performer in many a stock portfolio.

But Wal-Mart's success comes at a price, the plaintiffs claim.

"It has ridden the backs of its hourly employees to extreme profitability," the lawsuit filed here charges.

A big target

That Wal-Mart would draw litigation from its own workers was perhaps inevitable. The company has increasingly become a lightning rod for a range of critics, from anti-sprawl groups seeking to prevent big-box retailers from blighting their landscape, to anti-sweatshop activists who decry the store's use of cheap foreign laborers, to lawyers who have sued the company so frequently that it now draws more litigation than any entity except the federal government.

In many states, Wal-Mart is the single largest employer, a role that reflects how the nation's jobs continue to shift from manufacturing to service. The stores may bring hundreds of jobs to a community, but labor activists complain that they are not always good ones - pay averages less than $9 an hour, lower than the old, unionized manufacturing jobs that they replaced. Wal-Mart, though, has successfully rebuffed attempts to unionize its employees.

The company denies that it regularly makes employees work off the clock but concedes that there have been isolated incidents of this happening.

"It's wrong, and we don't tolerate it," said spokesman Bill Wertz, adding that the company has fired managers who have failed to pay employees for all the time they have worked. "We're very concerned, and we take these cases very seriously."

Mixed results

The suit in Michigan is similar to others filed elsewhere by workers seeking certification as a class to represent all Wal-Mart employees in their state. Plaintiffs have had mixed results.

Wal-Mart successfully beat class certification attempts in Ohio, Texas and Louisiana.

But a suit filed in Colorado was settled out of court after Wal-Mart reportedly agreed to pay $50 million. Similarly, employees won their case in Oregon, where a federal jury decided last month that the company violated wage-and-hour laws. A subsequent jury will determine the amount of damages Wal-Mart will pay.

Wertz said Wal-Mart is likely to appeal that verdict.

Here in Michigan, a Circuit Court judge took testimony in November, then put the case on hold until later this month.

The company contends that most of its employees are pleased with their work conditions. Attorneys for the company have argued that the employees who have sued may have individual complaints against their respective managers but do not represent the entire class of Wal-Mart workers, as their lawsuits seek to do.

"There is nothing about this lawsuit that makes it appropriate for class action treatment," Wal-Mart's attorneys wrote in a response to the suit here. "Even the named plaintiffs share virtually nothing in common with each other, except that they were all solicited to join this suit by the same counsel through the same `800' number."

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