Rather than pay its workers for every minute they work, Wal-Mart would rather pay for only some of those minutes, and attract millions of dollars in legal fines, plus pounding in the media headlines from coast to coast. They still come out ahead by short-changing their workers’ paychecks. A state jury yesterday ruled that Wal-Mart had violated Pennsylvania labor laws by forcing its “associates” to work through their rest breaks, and work off the clock without pay — both ways of denying workers their full paycheck. Lawyers for the aggrieved Wal-Mart workers say the decision could cost Wal-Mart $62 million in damages. At that price, Wal-Mart could have hired 4,124 new employees at $8 an hour for a year. The Pennsylvania jury is expected to rule today on the level of damages Wal-Mart will have to assume as a result of the class action lawsuit — one of several dozen such cases now in the state courts. The Pennsylvania lawsuit covers roughly 187,000 workers. Wal-Mart lost a similar case in California about half a year ago in California, and was ordered to pay $172 million in damages. A similar case in Colorado was settled for $50 million. It took the jury in Pennsylvania several hours to reach its decision. The case itself ran for 5 weeks. The employees involved worked for Wal-Mart between March of 1998, and May of 2006. One of the lead plaintiffs in the case, Dolores Hummel, worked at a Sam’s Club in Reading, Pennsylvania for ten years. She told the jury that she was forced to work through rest breaks and after work hours to keep up with her work in the bakery department. Hummel worked eight to 12 hours a month without pay, or 144 hours a year, the equivalent of 4 weeks a year of free labor for Wal-Mart. Extrapolating that figure over Wal-Mart’s 1.3 million U.S. workers, it would mean that”associates” donate 187.2 million hours of unpaid time to their employer, or the equivalent of 5.2 million weeks of free labor. If that work was valued at only $8 per hour, it would mean that Wal-Mart saved itself a whopping $1.5 billion in labor costs annually, which is roughly 15% of their $10 billion in profits last year. “One of Wal-Mart’s undisclosed secrets for its profitability is its creation and implementation of a system that encourages off-the-clock work for its hourly employees,” Hummel said in her suit. In the lawsuit, workers used Wal-Mart’s own electronic records against them, showing when employees were logged in as working on cash registers, for example.
Wal-Mart’s official policy is that workers in Pennsylvania are to be paid one 15 minute break during a shift of 3 hours or more, and two breaks and a 30 minute meal break on a shift of six hours. Wal-Mart continues to insist that it pays its workers for every minute worked, and that “off the clock” work is not permitted. But it keeps losing lawsuits when jurors see the evidence against the company. Wal-Mart profits are literally built on giving its workers no breaks. The term “give me a break” takes on heightened meaning at Wal-Mart, always.