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'Wage Abuse' Class Action Against Wal-Mart Could Include 40,000 Workers

SEATTLE - About 40,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees have been cleared to take part in a class action against Wal-Mart in the state of Washington, and plaintiffs' attorneys are now in the process of tracking those workers down.

The complaint alleges that Wal-Mart has "engaged in a systematic scheme of wage abuse against its hourly paid employees in the state of Washington." The illegal policies allegedly include off-the-clock work for which workers were never compensated, missed meal and rest breaks, and altered time records.

An associate at one of the law firms representing works in the suit, Tousley Brain Stephens associate Toby Marshall, told Progressive Grocer that as yet, plaintiffs' attorneys had only spoken to "less than 200" of the potential class members, but that a new 800 number would encourage more of the others to come forward.

The next step in reaching class members, Marshall said, would be to employ direct mail and publications, a process he said would be hampered by the transient nature of many Wal-Mart workers, who have a high turnover rate.

Marshall explained that attorneys at his firm would now focus on setting on trial date and gathering discovery. He added they would ask for a date at least a year away, to provide adequate time for preparation; and he predicted that Wal-Mart would most likely appeal the class action certification, although the retailer has not yet said it would do so.

"We strongly deny the allegations in these lawsuits," Wal-Mart responded in a statement. "These types of allegations are counter to everything the company stands for. Wal-Mart's policy is to pay associates for every minute they work. Any manager who requires or even tolerates 'off-the-clock' work would be violating company policy."

The lawsuit claims that although Wal-Mart maintains a strict no-overtime policy that it enforces by disciplining employees who work more than 40 hours a week without prior authorization, the company habitually under-staffs its stores, leaving workers with more work than they can finish in 40 hours. The result, the lawsuit says, is that thousands of employees work off the clock, going without meal and rest breaks rather than risking termination.

The original lawsuit was filed in September 2001 by Georgie Hartwig, who worked at a Wal-Mart in Colville, Wash. from 1994 to 2000, and two other ex-employees of the company.

In a statement, attorney Beth Terrell of Tousley Brain Stephens, which was appointed by the court, along with Lieff Cabraser Heimann and Bernstein, LLP, to serve as counsel for the class, attributed the lawsuit to Wal-Mart's "bottom-line culture that encourages managers to treat their workers illegally. Wal-Mart's managers have financial incentives to suppress store expenses -- and they do so on the backs of their hourly workers."

Terrell said that workers have reported that they are made to attend meetings and take computer-based training while off the clock. "Hourly managers, too, are often not paid for work they do," she continued. "They are encouraged not to record their time actually worked, and to forgo rest and lunch breaks in order to keep costs down. Wal-Mart hides behind written policies that purport to forbid these illegal labor practices, while at the same time fostering a culture in which these unlawful labor practices necessarily occur."

The class action covers anyone who worked for Wal-Mart from September 1995 to the present in the state and was not promoted to a management position. Unlike other class actions that require class members to join, the order creates a class that automatically includes all current and former hourly paid employees.

Wal-Mart has been the target of similar actions in more than three-dozen states. A three-year-old California lawsuit seeks back wages and punitive damages since 1997 for an estimated 200,000 current and former workers. Additionally, Wal-Mart faces a federal investigation into its alleged hiring of contract cleaning services staffed by illegal immigrants, and a sex discrimination lawsuit on behalf of 1.6 million female workers on pay and promotion issues.
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