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From Agribusiness Examiner 12/26/02

WAL-MART, WORLD'S LARGEST RETAILER, FOUND GUILTY BY PORTLAND, OREGON JURY FORCED WORKERS TO WORK UNPAID OVERTIME

STEVEN GREENHOUSE, NEW YORK TIMES:

A federal jury in Portland, Oregon, found Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer, guilty yesterday [December 18] of forcing its employees to work unpaid overtime in the first of 40 such lawsuits to go to trial. In the four-week trial, dozens of Wal-Mart workers testified that under pressure from their managers they frequently clocked out after 40 hours and continued working. "The company's witnesses said this absolutely never happens at Wal-Mart, and the jury didn't believe them," said Shane Youtz, one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs. "Our witnesses said, `What happens at Wal-Mart is, if you want to work there a long time, you have to work off the clock' It's part of the culture there." In the lawsuit, 400 current and former employees from 18 stores in Oregon accused the company of violating federal and state wage laws by systematically pressuring them to work unpaid overtime.

After deliberating for four days, the jury concluded that Wal-Mart had shown a pattern of widespread and unwavering violations. Damages are to be decided in a separate trial. Bill Wertz, a spokesman for Wal-Mart, which employs more than one million workers in its 3,300 stores nationwide, said the company was disappointed by the verdict. "We tried to demonstrate to the jury that we have a strong policy against requiring our workers, our associates, to work off the clock, and that any violations were scattered and infrequent.

We apparently did not make our case well enough." Lawyers for the plaintiffs said Wal-Mart lost credibility when it put more than 50 managers on the stand to testify that they had never seen employees work off the clock. The Oregon suit was not a class action. Instead it involved a mailing sent out to 15,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees in Oregon that invited individuals to join the lawsuit.

Lawyers have sued Wal-Mart in more than three dozen states, seeking to gain class-action status in asserting that the company squeezes tens of millions of dollars of free work out of its employees each year by pressuring or encouraging them to work off the clock. "This case is about people working for free for America's largest employer," the plaintiffs' main lawyer, James Piotrowski, said in his closing argument last Friday. "It's about managers who learned how to put the pressure on." Carolyn Thiebes, the lead plaintiff who worked as a personnel manager at stores in Salem and Dallas, Oregon, said in an interview that Wal-Mart frequently piled on too much work for 40 hours, so she often put in five to 15 extra hours off the clock each week.

She said she feared that she would get in trouble if she put in for overtime or if she was seen as not finishing her assigned responsibilities within 40 hours. Ms. Thiebes testified that several Wal-Mart employees had formed what she called "the Over-40 Club," in which members worked more than 40 hours a week and then asked managers to subtract hours from their time cards so the cards showed that the employees worked only 40 hours.

She also testified that Wal-Mart was so averse to paying overtime that her bosses sometimes asked her to use her computer to erase hours from employees' time records to help hold down costs, especially overtime costs. Federal law required that workers be paid time-and-a-half for all hours over 40. "This verdict is great," Ms. Thiebes said. "I feel like somebody finally listened to me. I'm hoping that this sends a message to all Wal-Mart associates to come forward and speak up." Mr. Wertz and other Wal-Mart executives said the instances of off-the-clock work were isolated. "Our policy calls for disciplinary action to be taken against any manager who requires or even tolerates off-the-clock work," he said. Daniel Corey, a former lawn and garden manager for Wal-Mart in Pendleton, Oregon, testified that he feared he would lose his job if he took more than 40 hours a week to finish his job and then put in for overtime. "Because it's such a small community, jobs aren't that good there," Mr. Corey testified. "You held on to your job.

I feared losing my job. I feared getting fired." In a class-action lawsuit in Colorado, Wal-Mart reportedly paid $50 million two years ago to settle a case involving 69,000 workers in that state. In another case, it agreed to pay $500,000 to settle a case covering 120 workers at one store, in Gallup, New Mexico

 
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