Jury to Wal-Mart: No free lunch hour

OAKLAND, Calif. (PAI) — There’s an old right-wing economists’ saying, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.” Well, a jury here has turned that around and told Wal-Mart that there’s no such thing as a free — unpaid — lunch hour.

In a Dec. 22 decision in Alameda County Superior Court, jurors ordered the anti-worker behemoth to pay 116,000 present and former workers $57 million in back wages they lost, plus $115 million in damages, because the company refused to give them paid time for lunch, as California law requires. The workers toiled there from 2003 to 2005.

The ruling was applauded by WakeUpWalMart.com, but set off a long debate among bloggers on the web site, complete with invective by Wal-Mart supporters.

“Current and former Wal-Mart workers will finally get the justice they deserve and rightfully earned. It is a sad day when Wal-Mart provides these so-called low prices by exploiting their workers and even the law,” said Paul Blank, executive director of WakeUpWalMart.com.

“The size of this verdict speaks loudly to the disdain Americans have for multi-billion-dollar companies’ needlessly exploiting their workers. Furthermore, this lawsuit is just the beginning of other class action lawsuits highlighting Wal-Mart’s practice of unfairly or illegally exploiting their workers.”

The jurors decided Wal-Mart broke a five-year-old state law. The law requires employers to give 30-minute unpaid lunch breaks to workers who work at least six hours a day. But if they missed lunch — as they often were forced to do — they were supposed to get a full hour’s pay. They never got it. Wal-Mart claimed they had to ask for it first, and didn’t. Wal-Mart settled a similar suit in Colorado last year, paying workers $50 million.

The Oakland lawsuit, which took four years to get to trial, isn’t the only legal hot water Wal-Mart faces in the Golden State. Even Wal-Mart admits, in a filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, that federal prosecutors and a grand jury in Los Angeles launched “a criminal investigation” in October on how the company is handling hazardous waste shipped from Los Angeles stores to its Las Vegas return center.

Wal-Mart said it usually moves hazardous materials to return centers, then takes them to sites approved for hazardous waste disposal. But the prosecutors told Wal-Mart it potentially violated the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which requires hazardous waste to be shipped straight to a disposal site via a certified hazardous waste carrier. “The company cannot predict the outcome of this matter or the amount of any possible loss or range of loss which may arise from this matter,” Wal-Mart told the SEC. Wal-Mart refused to say what the hazardous waste is.