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September 21, 2005
Wal-Mart Accused of Denying Lunch Breaks

A jury this week heard lawyers representing about 116,000 former and current Wal-Mart employees in California accuse the retailer of systematically and illegally denying workers lunch breaks.

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One of the lawyers, Fred Furth, told the 12 jurors and four alternates in Alameda County Superior Court that Wal-Mart owes the workers more than $66 million, plus interest.

In addition, the plaintiffs seek "millions of dollars" to punish the company for the alleged wrongdoing, according to the Associated Press. Wal-Mart, the nation's largest retailer, earned $10 billion last year.

The case centers on a 2001 California law that requires employers to give 30-minute, unpaid lunch breaks to employees who've worked 6 hours. If the break isn't given, employees are entitled to an additional hour of pay.

The lawsuit is a class action, covering former and current employees in California from 2001 to 2005.

Wal-Mart declined to give an opening statement, reserving its right to give one later, according to the AP, which added that company lawyers also declined comment outside the courtroom.

But in court documents, the Wal-Mart claims that workers did not demand penalty wages on a timely basis. It also claims that it did pay some employees their penalty pay and that most workers agreed to waive their meal periods--as the law allows--in 2003.

In addition, Wal-Mart calls some of the violations minor, including a demand that employees punch back in from lunch and work during their meal breaks.

The lawsuit was brought in 2001 by a handful of San Francisco-area former Wal-Mart employees and took four years of legal wrangling to get to trial, the AP reports. During that time, Wal-Mart was forced to produce internal audits that plaintiffs' lawyers maintain showed the company knew it was not granting meal breaks on thousands of occasions.

That 2000 audit was given to top-level executives, according to evidence submitted to jurors Monday. One company document called results of the audit "a chronic problem." A one-week review of company policies showed thousands of instances in which workers were not given a meal break in accordance with the law, according to the documents provided to the jury.

"This is Wal-Mart auditing Wal-Mart," Furth, the plaintiffs' lawyer, remarked.

The trial will last weeks, according to the AP, which notes that the plaintiffs will need nine jurors to side with them to prevail.

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