Jury: Wal-Mart Broke Pennsylvania Labor Laws

A state jury found Thursday that Wal-Mart (WMT) broke Pennsylvania labor laws by forcing employees to work through rest breaks and off the clock, a decision plaintiffs' lawyers said would result in at least $62 million in damages.

Jurors will return Friday to determine damages in the class-action lawsuit, which covers up to 187,000 hourly current and former workers.

"I think it reinforces that this company's sweatshop mindset is a serious problem, both legally and morally," said Chris Kofinis, a spokesman for WakeUpWalMart.com, a union-funded effort to improve working conditions at the stores.

The Bentonville, Ark.-based retail giant is facing a slew of similar suits around the country.

Wal-Mart settled a Colorado case for $50 million and is appealing a $172 million award handed down last year by a California jury.

The company declined to comment because of the pending deliberations over damages.

"Because the jury is still in deliberations, it would not be appropriate to comment on this matter until a decision is reached," Wal-Mart spokesman John Simley said.

Plaintiffs' lawyer Michael Donovan also declined comment.

The jury deliberated on the verdict for several hours over two days, after a five-week trial. Jurors found that Wal-Mart acted in bad faith but rejected claims that the company denied workers meal breaks.

Wal-Mart, the nation's largest employer, earned $10 billion in 2004.

The Pennsylvania case involves labor practices at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores between March 1998 and May 1, 2006.

Lead plaintiff Dolores Hummel, who worked at a Sam's Club in Reading from 1992-2002, charged in her suit that she had to work through breaks and after quitting time to meet work demands in the bakery. She said she worked eight to 12 unpaid hours a month, on average, to meet work demands.

"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, which was filed in 2002.

The plaintiffs used electronic evidence, such as systems that show when employees are signed on to cash registers and other machines, to help win class certification during several days of hearings last year.

Wal-Mart had a corporate policy that gives hourly employees in Pennsylvania one paid 15-minute break during a shift of at least three hours and two such breaks, plus an unpaid 30-minute meal break, on a shift of at least six hours.