Wal-Mart loses suit over unpaid breaks

BUSINESS DIGEST

October 13, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

PHILADELPHIA --A Philadelphia jury is expected to decide today how much Wal-Mart Stores Inc. should pay its Pennsylvania employees now for not paying them in the past.

Yesterday, the jury found that Wal-Mart, the state's largest private employer, knowingly benefited by not paying its Pennsylvania employees for all the time they worked.

Damages could top $100 million for the nearly 187,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees involved in the class action, based on damages awarded in a similar suit in California.

Wal-Mart forced employees to work off the clock and did not pay all of them, as promised, for all of their rest breaks, according to testimony in the five-week trial involving 186,979 former and current Pennsylvania Wal-Mart employees.

"I would say Wal-Mart was stealing our time because we weren't getting our breaks," former employee Delores Killingsworth Barber, 25, of North Philadelphia, told the jury during her testimony last month. Barber worked at a Wal-Mart in Northeast Philadelphia.

Wal-Mart's attorney, Neal Manne, argued that Wal-Mart properly paid its employees and that the handful of lead plaintiffs were among a small group of disgruntled employees.

"It is in Wal-Mart's own interest for employees to get meal and rest breaks," Manne told the jury, arguing that breaks improved productivity and reduced turnover.

In December, California jurors awarded $172.3 million to a class of 115,919 current and former Wal-Mart and Sam's Club employees in California who missed meal breaks.

Pennsylvania's case has more plaintiffs and covers more issues - off-the-clock work and missed rest breaks.

Unlike in the California case, the jurors found that Wal-Mart did provide unpaid meal breaks for its Pennsylvania employees, as it promised in its employee handbook. That finding was the only victory for Wal-Mart in the trial before Judge Mark Bernstein in Common Pleas Court.

Hourly workers at Wal-Mart stores were forced to work through rest breaks because Wal-Mart managers were under constant pressure to cut labor costs, plaintiffs' attorney Michael Donovan told jurors in closing arguments Tuesday.

Store managers also received bonuses that sometimes doubled their pay if they reached profit goals, according to testimony.

One plaintiff, Michelle Braun, who worked at the Wal-Mart in a Philadelphia mall called Franklin Mills, testified that she had clocked out but was locked inside the store and forced to work - without pay - after her shift had ended.

Barber said the problem got worse during the holidays. Workers were to do "whatever it takes to get done, and if that meant missing your break, that's what had to be done."

Several Wal-Mart employees testified for the defense that they never missed meal or rest breaks. One Wal-Mart employee, Bill Clinton, who works at the Quakertown store, said he often worked through his meal break so he could leave earlier.

Pennsylvania law does not require employers to provide either paid meal or rest breaks. However, if employers say they are going to provide paid breaks, they have an obligation to do so, plaintiffs' attorney Michael Donovan said in his closing statement.

Wal-Mart declined to comment.

At least seven other class action lawsuits and more than 50 smaller lawsuits are pending against Wal-Mart on wage and hour issues.

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