2 ex-workers allege wage tampering by Wal-Mart
An attorney says thousands could potentially join the class-action lawsuit
Thousands of residents who worked at Wal-Mart stores in the islands between 1997 and 2004 might have been unpaid for hours -- or even days -- of work and overtime as part of a systematic practice of "time shaving" aimed at keeping payroll costs down, a class-action lawsuit filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court alleges.
The allegations come more than a year after news of suspected wage tampering at Wal-Mart first surfaced in a New York Times report, which also detailed similar practices at other large corporations.
Since then at least 40 similar class actions against Wal-Mart have been filed in other states, including New York, Washington and California. None have been resolved.
Meanwhile, Wal-Mart has consistently denied any wrongdoing. A spokeswoman declined to comment on the Hawaii suit yesterday, saying she had not seen it.
On its Web site to deal with community relations, www.walmartfacts.com, the retailer says its policy is to "pay hourly associates for every minute they work."
Wal-Mart also says that managers "doing the wrong thing ... would be disciplined and possibly even fired. Any manager who requires or tolerates 'off-the-clock' work would be violating policy and labor laws."
In a news conference yesterday, Honolulu attorneys Arthur Park and Wayne Parsons said Wal-Mart employees likely would not have noticed the alleged deductions to their paychecks because they were subtle, possibly as little as a few dollars a day.
"This has been hidden from the employees," said Park, adding that time-shaving was likely done manually and carried out by store managers under pressure to stay within payroll budgets. "We have solid evidence this has been done."
Park and Parsons filed the suit on behalf of two Big Island residents, Tammy L. Poha and Moke K. Palakiko. Both worked at the Wal-Mart in Hilo -- Poha from 1996 to 2000, and Palakiko for three years, from 1997 to 2000.
Park said the two came to him after he told some of his clients about the allegations of work-record tampering against Wal-Mart.
The suit does not provide numbers on how many employees might have been victims of time-shaving or how much they are allegedly due, but Parsons believes thousands could be eligible to join the class action.
According to Wal-Mart's Web site, the retailer employs 4,072 people in Hawaii.
In addition to the wages allegedly due the employees, the suit seeks punitive damages and attorneys' fees.
It accuses Wal-Mart of illegally cutting payroll costs in at least three ways:
» By altering records to make it appear that an employee's workday ended one minute after their scheduled lunch or dinner break, "denying employees their pay for the three or four hours of work they performed after their meal period."
In the April 4, 2004, New York Times article, Wal-Mart admitted that the so-called "one-minute clock-out" was a common practice but was used only as a way of teaching employees to remember to clock back in after breaks.
A Wal-Mart executive said store managers were instructed to stop the practice in 2003.
» With deliberate alterations to time records, which made it appear that employees took meal breaks when they had not.
» And by failing to pay for overtime work.
Wal-Mart, based in Bentonville, Ark., has six stores in the islands. Its newest location opened a year ago on Keeaumoku Street, near Ala Moana Center.