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Women try to join Wal-Mart suit

Four former employees of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club say they were not paid for all the time they worked.

By STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 3, 2002


Four former employees of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club say they were not paid for all the time they worked.

Cindy Sarda's payday as a Sam's Club cashier ended when she punched out at 9 p.m. But too often, Sarda said, she and other employees had to wait for a manager to unlock the doors of the Broward County store to let them out -- time the company never paid a dime for.

"It could be a half hour, 15 or 20 minutes," says Sarda. "If we couldn't find her, we'd have to wait on the clock for her to let us out. The buses stopped running around 9:30. I missed a lot of buses and had to hitchhike home."

Sarda and three other former employees of Wal-Mart and Sam's Club in Florida are suing parent Wal-Mart Stores Inc., alleging the retailing giant didn't pay them for all the time they worked.

The claims echo those made by employees and former employees in lawsuits filed in 27 other states, as the New York Times reported last week.

The women worked through required rest breaks and lunch breaks, the Florida suit states. They worked before clocking in and after clocking out to finish jobs they couldn't complete in their regular shifts, the women say.

Wal-Mart managers adopt such tactics because their pay and bonuses are based in part on how successfully they hold down payroll costs, the suit alleges.

The women in the suit worked in South Florida and the Panhandle, but they want their suit certified as a class action to represent about 90,000 former and current Wal-Mart employees throughout Florida.

The methods Wal-Mart managers in different states used to avoid paying employees for all the time they worked is remarkably similar, said attorney Russell Lloyd, whose Houston firm is part of a group pursuing suits against the company in six southern states, including Florida.

"They all say the same thing, whether it's the elderly white lady in Tennessee or the young black guy in New Orleans," he said.

Policies at Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer with more than 1.3-million employees and 3,200 stores worldwide, require that employees be paid for all the time they work, said Bill Wertz, a spokesman at the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters.

"It's against our policy for managers to force associates to work off the clock," he said. "We discipline managers and have fired managers that do that."

Wal-Mart has won rulings in Ohio and Louisiana to keep lawsuits from being certified as class actions for all those in similar circumstances, Wertz said. Employees called by the company in those cases testified they weren't forced to work without pay, he said.

"There is no pattern or practice of this against our employees," he said.

But Wal-Mart settled a class-action suit over working off the clock on behalf of 69,000 employees in Colorado two years ago. The company paid $50-million, the New York Times reported, although Wertz said the undisclosed amount was smaller.

Sarda, the Broward County Sam's Club employee, and Judy Danneman of West Palm Beach, said in interviews that the retailer routinely understaffs stores and overburdens workers.

"There just weren't enough hours in the day," said Danneman, who worked at three Palm Beach County Wal-Marts as an hourly employee and assistant manager.

As a department manager making $8.10 an hour in West Palm Beach, Danneman said, she arrived early to stock shelves with merchandise that arrived overnight. Working alone, she rarely finished before customers started coming through the doors.

Danneman said she typically skipped the two 15-minute rest breaks and cut short the hourlong lunch break to catch up. She usually hit 40 hours for the week by mid-morning Friday, she said.

"I'd punch out and just keep working," Danneman said. "I saw too many people get written up for not finishing their work. Then, they get rid of you."

At the Sam's Club in Sunrise, Sarda was often the only employee working in the meat department or bakery when time for her breaks arrived. She wasn't allowed to leave the departments unattended. So, she usually passed on the breaks and didn't clock out, although sometimes the minutes were deducted from her paycheck as if she had, Sarda said.

During a brief stint as a cashier supervisor, Sarda said, a store manager told her how to keep workers from taking the last 15-minute break of the day.

"The key was to keep moving it up," she said. "Tell everyone you're working on it. Say you'll give them a break and keep doing it."

Many of the hourly employees Danneman worked with at Wal-Mart from 1990 to 2001 were single mothers like herself, immigrants and people down on their luck.

"They couldn't afford to lose their jobs," she said. "They'd give you a directive, and you'd try to do it any way you could. You've got bills to pay and a family to support. You don't think twice to do what you have to do."

-- Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.

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