Against the Wal

A class-action lawsuit in Dakota County could strike a costly blow to the world’s largest private employer

In July 2001, Nancy Braun was watching television with a friend when a commercial caught her attention. The ad was soliciting litigants for a potential lawsuit against Wal-Mart, the Arkansas-based retailing giant, for allegedly cheating employees out of wages they were rightfully owed.

A single mother of two—and grandmother of four—Braun had started working for Wal-Mart in 1997. At the time, she lived in Slidell, Louisiana, where she had previously worked for a grocery store. She considered Wal-Mart a step-up. “I liked shopping there,” she says. “I thought I’d like working there too.”

And she did enjoy it, at least for a while. She liked the people, the work, the sense of solidarity among employees. But in 2000, homesick for her family, she moved back to Minnesota and transferred to the Wal-Mart in Apple Valley, where she was assigned to run the Radio Grill, the outlet’s now-defunct in-store restaurant. There, Braun quickly became disenchanted with the company, especially after a supervisor repeatedly prohibited her from taking breaks—even after she had surgery that required frequent trips to the bathroom. She soon quit.

Braun’s friend encouraged her to call the number mentioned in the advertisement to see if she qualified for the suit, but Braun was hesitant. She didn’t relish the prospect of reliving that period in her life. Yet she remembered how her mother, a longtime switchboard operator at Carleton College, had always encouraged her to speak up, to do the right thing when confronted with an injustice, big or small. “You can’t allow yourself to be treated like an animal,” she says. “I’m sure Mr. Walton would agree with me on that.”

One morning this past October, six years after she first saw that television ad, Braun sat inside a Dakota County courtroom in Hastings, her striped shirt and beige pants—bought from Wal-Mart—in marked contrast to dark suits, leather briefcases, BlackBerrys, and laptops sported by the army of attorneys in the room. “I’m a Plain Jane kind of gal, nothing fancy,” she said. “But I know what’s right. What Wal-Mart did to me wasn’t right.”

That sense of determination is one of the reasons why Braun found herself in Hastings, taking on the country’s largest corporation. She’s one of four lead plaintiffs in a massive, class-action lawsuit filed against Wal-Mart, a case that could affect 56,000 people who worked at Wal-Mart in Minnesota between 1998 and 2004. The suit alleges that over that period, the discount retailer systematically avoided paying wages earned by employees for overtime work and missed or shortened meal and break periods. And though the case is not the first of its kind—workers have won victories in similar cases in California and Pennsylvania—it may end up being one of the most significant. If Judge Robert King Jr. rules against Wal-Mart in this phase of the trial, the company would likely have to pay up to $500 for each employee, which could mean a payout in the tens of millions. More significantly, a ruling against Wal-Mart in this first part of the trial would also mean that the case would move to a jury to assess whether punitive damages are in order. If that happens, Wal-Mart could be on the hook for not only millions, but billions.

Braun’s troubles began after she returned to Minnesota. At the Apple Valley Wal-Mart, she worked in several different departments before running the Radio Grill. At first, she enjoyed the work. “I treated that place like my own kitchen,” she says. “I did it all willingly. I’m not afraid of work…never have been.” Not long after she started in Apple Valley, Braun had learned she needed to have gallbladder surgery. After the procedure, Braun suffered some relatively common side effects that required her to take frequent bathroom breaks. Braun’s supervisors initially said they would accommodate her needs, but that’s not what happened. “I’d get in a pinch, be there all alone, and soil myself, ruin my clothes,” Braun recalled. “I’d feel so degraded. Sometimes I wouldn’t have clothes with me, and the manager would say ‘We have clothes here for sale. Get your purse and go buy yourself some.’ They didn’t care.”

Putting up with an insufferable boss is, of course, an unavoidable part of a job for many people. Yet Braun’s treatment, argue the plaintiffs’ attorneys, wasn’t unique among Wal-Mart employees. Another lead plaintiff, Debbie Simonson, 59, started working as a cashier at the Wal-Mart in Brooklyn Park in April 2000. As a single mother of two children, she needed the money. And, like Braun, Simonson was often told by her supervisor not to take bathroom breaks. “He’d say ‘Skip the bathroom and get your butt out here,’ and I’d do it,” she explained in court. “It was an order. Your boss tells you to do something, you do it.” She quit after 13 months.

According to Justin Perl, the plaintiffs’ lead attorney, the denial of breaks was standard operating procedure at Wal-Mart. As part of the case, he and his colleagues combed through Wal-Mart’s own records to find workplace violations. They identified millions of missed bathroom and rest breaks, as well as millions of shortened rest breaks, along with thousands of missed meal breaks. “It’s the Wal-Mart way,” says Perl. “They nickel-and-dime the lowest- paid workers so they can improve their own bottom line.”

Wal-Mart sees it differently. A spokesman, John Simley, says the company doesn’t comment on pending litigation, but in other cases the company has denied it encourages employees to miss breaks or work off the clock. Wal-Mart, company officials maintain, tries to ensure compliance with company policies and state laws, but has no control over individual choices workers make.

Yet those individual choices are often informed by pressure from the company, argues Perl. According to testimony in other wage cases, Wal-Mart compensates its managers largely via bonuses that are tied to profits—and the easiest way to increase profits is by cutting expenses. “They do it by erasing everyone else’s salary,” says Perl. “It’s not a hard job. They cut staffing. They shave breaks. They make their profit goals. It’s the only basis for how they compensate their managers.”

Pamela Reinert, 54, saw for herself how that pressure was brought to bear. A petite, soft-spoken mother of seven from Maplewood who has a PhD in psychology, she joined Sam’s Club—a Wal-Mart subsidiary—in 1997, after she was laid off from another job. Like Braun and Simonson, Reinert liked the work, and was good at it. She made it into the management-training program shortly after joining the company. As a manager, she would sometimes try to intercede on behalf of workers who weren’t getting their breaks. Eventually, though, she was told to stop making trouble. She eventually quit after a supervisor threatened to write her up for insubordination—for trying to take her complaints up the chain of command.

A ruling on the case is expected sometime this month. But no matter how it turns out, Nancy Braun says she will always miss Wal-Mart. “I wish I could have stayed working there,” she says. She enjoyed the other employees, the customers, and the idea “that there was always something to do, always a way to keep busy. I worked my way up—that was a big deal for me. When I quit, I felt defeated.”

Now living in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and selling insurance at a cell phone company, she tries to attend the trial whenever possible. When she’s in Hastings, she occasionally makes a stop across the street from the courthouse to do some shopping—at Wal-Mart.

Margaret Nelson Brinkhaus is a Minnesota-based writer.