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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Wal-Mart Workers Win $62 Million

By MARYCLAIRE DALE, Associated Press Writer
Wed Oct 3, 11:56 AM

PHILADELPHIA - Wal-Mart workers in Pennsylvania who previously won a $78.5 million class-action award for working off the clock will share an additional $62.3 million in damages, a judge ruled Wednesday.

About 125,000 people will receive $500 each in damages under a state law invoked when a company, without cause, withholds pay for more than 30 days.

A Philadelphia jury last year awarded the workers the exact amount they had sought, rejecting Wal-Mart's claim that some people chose to work through breaks or that a few minutes of extra work here and there was insignificant.

"Just as highly paid executives' promised equity interests or put options or percentage of sale proceeds are protected fringe benefits and wage supplements, so too the monetary equivalents of 'paid break' time cashiers and other employees were prohibited from taking are protected fringe benefits and wage supplements," Philadelphia Common Pleas Judge Mark Bernstein wrote.

Similar suits charging that Wal-Mart violated state wage laws are in play across the country.

A California trial ended with a $172 million verdict that Wal-Mart is appealing while the Bentonville, Ark.-based company settled a Colorado suit for $50 million.
A trial opened last week in Minnesota while suits are pending in New Jersey and several other states.

The Pennsylvania class-action suit involves 187,000 current and former employees who worked at Wal-Mart and Sam's Clubs from March 1998 through May 2006. The initial $78.5 million award represented the wages lost by those workers.

A smaller number _ about 125,000 _ qualified for the damage award Wednesday. The others were excluded by legal time limits and are seeking interest on the back wages.
"The law in its majesty applies equally to highly paid executives and minimum wage clerks," Bernstein wrote.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Donovan credited Bernstein for recognizing in Wednesday's ruling "that ordinary workers are entitled to the same protection under the law as executives."

His clients have not yet received any money and likely won't for some time if the company appeals. The payments for lost wages are expected to range from about $50 to a few thousand dollars, depending on employment history.

A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said the company discourages employees from working off the clock and disciplines managers who permit it.

"Many employees testified that they skipped rest breaks by choice. While we discourage that practice, employers should not be penalized when employees do that on their own," said the spokeswoman, Sharon Weber.

Wal-Mart shares rose 56 cents to $45.43 Wednesday in midday trading.

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