Wal-Mart lawsuit exposes widespread worker abuse

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After months of being denied breaks, Debbie Simonson had had enough. She quit her job at the Brooklyn Park Wal-Mart store because “I was tired of all the stress . . . of being told I couldn’t go to the bathroom.” Even though she didn’t get to take the breaks, Wal-Mart never paid her for the time she worked, she said.

Then, on one of her last days of work, Simonson forgot to punch the time clock at the end of her shift. So a supervisor marked the log for 6:59 a.m. – one minute after she started. Instead of getting paid for eight hours of work, she was paid for one minute.

Simonson and 56,000 other current and former Wal-Mart employees hope to get the money they are owed – and a measure of justice – through a class action lawsuit that began Tuesday in Dakota County District Court. The case involves workers employed at 46 Wal-Mart and 13 Sam Club’s stores across Minnesota from September 1998 to January 2004.

Attorneys for the workers say the case will have implications for Wal-Mart employees across the country.

Mountains of evidence

By agreement of both parties, the case is being heard without a jury by District Judge Robert King, Jr. Boxes of evidence – everything from payroll records, tax records, and company reports to memos and e-mails – line the courtroom walls. The case has taken more than six years to prepare and involved examining data from some 9 million shifts, said William Sieben, lead attorney for the workers.

The research uncovered more than 14.6 million violations of both Minnesota law and company policy, amounting to more than $27 million, the attorneys said.

“While these employees are working as hard as they can, below the poverty line, Wal-Mart is breaking the law . . .” attorney Justin Perl of Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand said in opening statements.

The suit alleges:

• Wal-Mart failed to pay workers when they missed all or part of their 15-minute rest breaks.
• Wal-Mart failed to pay workers when they missed all or part of their half-hour lunch breaks.
• Wal-Mart routinely required employees to work “off the clock” for no pay before and after shifts.
• Wal-Mart managers falsified time sheets to show that breaks were taken.
• Wal-Mart managers regularly engaged in the “one-minute punch” practice, depriving workers of pay for entire shifts.

Pressure to cut costs

These practices were widespread because store managers were under constant pressure to cut labor costs, attorneys said. They cited internal company memos in which managers were chastised if they sought overtime pay for employees or did not meet company directives to lower payroll costs every year.

“The message is delivered,” Perl said. “It starts at the top: ‘Take a blowtorch to payroll.'”

When workers complained, they “got in trouble or were threatened,” he said.

Simonson, a single mother with two children, earned $7.25 an hour at the Brooklyn Park store. When asked how many breaks she was denied over her year of employment, she responded, “Too many to count.”

Cashiers were only allowed to use the bathroom during their rest break, she said. After being forced work for four hours without a break, her chronic bladder condition – which had required surgery – worsened, she said.

Her attempts to raise the problem with managers fell on deaf ears, she testified.

Burying the evidence

Not just store managers failed to act, Perl said. During his opening statement, he showed two videos of top company officials talking to shareholders and managers about wage and hour violations.

“We know we do some things we probably shouldn’t do . . .” a human resources vice president can be heard saying on one of the tapes.

When an internal company audit revealed tens of thousands of violations occurring at Wal-Mart stores around the country in just one week, “they buried the audit,” Perl said.

Wal-Mart, the world’s largest employer, keeps voluminous records on all its stores on a computer larger than the one in the Pentagon. Attorneys hope to use the company’s own records against it.

Last year in Philadelphia, workers won $78 million in a lawsuit against Wal-Mart over identical violations. Workers in at least 10 other states are awaiting the outcome of the Minnesota case, which will probably be in court until the end of October, Sieben said.

Attorneys for Wal-Mart did not make opening statements Tuesday, but said they would wait until after the plaintiffs have presented their case.

In addition to seeking financial relief for the employees, the attorneys are asking the judge to issue an injunction barring the company from using the “one-minute punch” to falsify employee work records.

Despite publicity about the practice, “we think it’s still going on,” Sieben said.

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