Wal-Mart Faces Sexual Discrimination Suit

June 25, 2004 - 08:48

A federal judge is allowing a gender discrimination lawsuit to proceed against Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. on behalf of more than 1.5 million women who have worked for the company, making it the largest private employer civil rights case in U.S. history. The July 22 ruling by U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins in San Francisco, Calif. covers all women who have worked at stores across the United States since December 26, 1998.

The lawsuit, originally filed in June 1998 by two current and four former Wal-Mart employees in California, alleges that the store pays female employees less than men for the same jobs, passes them over for promotions and retaliates against those who complain. While 70 percent of Wal-Mart's hourly employees are female, fewer than 15 percent of women hold store manager positions, according to Reuters. The plaintiffs are also accusing Wal-Mart of a variety of sexist treatment by male store mangers. According to the Los Angeles Times, Brad Seligman, the lawyer leading a team of attorneys from seven firms representing the plaintiffs, said that the trial is at least one year off, but the plaintiffs are open to a settlement.

"I think it's a terrific victory for the women who work at Wal-Mart who have labored for years under working conditions where they have been told repeatedly they have been unsuitable for management and not suitable to make as much as men," said Joseph Sellers, one of the district attorneys representing the plaintiffs, in an Associated Press story. "It's going to open the courthouse doors for 1.6 million women, most of whom would never bring their case to court, many of whom have suffered in silence and have probably given up on any chance to make things better."

According to the Washington Post, Richard Dragin, a statistician at California State University, found that it took women an average of 4.38 years from the date of hire to be promoted to assistant manager, while it took men 2.86 years. It took 10.12 years for women to reach store manager, compared with 8.64 years for men. Dragin also found that female managers made an average salary of $89,280 a year, compared to men in the same position earning an average of $105,682 a year. The results for hourly workers showed that women were paid 6.7 percent less than men in comparable positions.

Wal-Mart said it would appeal the lawsuit. "Let's keep in mind that today's ruling has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the case," the company said in a statement, according to the Washington Post. "Judge Jenkins is simply saying he thinks it meets the legal requirements necessary to move forward as a class action. We strongly disagree with his decision and will seek an appeal." According to the Los Angeles Times, Wal-Mart has 10 days to ask the United States 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco for permission to appeal. Requests are not automatically granted, but lawyers predicted the Circuit would allow the company to appeal because the size of the class was unprecedented.

Wal-Mart had argued that the number of potential plaintiffs made it impossible to try the case as a class action. While Jenkins acknowledged that the number of plaintiffs raised concerns about how he would manage the case, in his 84-page ruling, he wrote that the 1964 Civil Rights Act forbids discrimination in the workplace and makes no exception for large employers, according to the Los Angeles Times .

Also according to the Los Angeles Times, the suit seeks unspecified back pay and lost wages for all women employed by Wal-Mart during the period covered by the suit. It also demands punitive damages and asks the court to impose changes on the way Wal-Mart trains and communicates with employees, gives raises and decides whom to promote. Wal-Mart said it already made changes and would continue to evaluate employment practices.

"Earlier this month Wal-Mart announced a new job classification and pay structure for hourly associates," said Mona Williams, spokesperson for Wal-Mart, according to Reuters. "This new pay plan was developed with the assistance of third-party consultants and is designed to ensure internal equity and external competitiveness." Wal-Mart announced that it launched a series of pay initiatives and opportunities aimed at women and minorities. Managers can lose as much as 7.5 percent in compensation this year and 15 percent next year for failing to achieve diversity goals, according to the Los Angeles Times.

"We're representing a lot of women who wouldn't come forward and speak for themselves," said Christine Kwapnoski, one of the original plaintiffs in the suit, in the Los Angeles Times. "I hope women get braver in terms of standing up against big businesses, and I hope it makes some changes where the playing field is a lot more equal."

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