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Wal-Mart puts the screws on the poor [24 Jan 2004|03:35pm]

The New York Times recently reported that an internal audit at Wal-Mart warned top executives three years ago that employee records at 128 stores pointed to extensive labor-law violations.

The audit looked at the timecard records of 25,000 employees. It found: 1,371 instances in which minors worked too late at night, worked during school hours or worked too many hours in a day; 60,767 instances in which workers did not take rest breaks, and 15,705 instances suggesting that employees had worked through their mealtimes.

Wal-Mart says this data is meaningless, because the most likely explanation is that the employees in question just forgot to punch out when they took their breaks.

As someone who has worked in a sales associate position at a large corporate store (though not Wal-Mart), I can speak to the absurdity of this defense.

I did on occasion forget to punch out when I took my lunch break or punch back in when I came back. I'm sure this does happen at Wal-Mart.

However, I'm sure what does not happen is that this mistake goes undetected. Every time I made the error, my supervisor asked me about it, either the next day or at some point before the end of the pay period. Supervisors are generally given a sort of budget of hours to work with. When they go to balance this budget and see that the time clock computer is reporting more hours than what they were expecting to spend, they investigate. This is if they don't find the mistake in the daily review they do of people's time cards to make sure that they were in on time and worked the number of hours that they were supposed to work that day.

I'm even more certain that this wouldn't go undetected at Wal-Mart, a store with a reputation for being extremely vigilant with regard to its costs. The idea that Wal-Mart would be paying its employees for time when they are not working (like when they forget to punch out for their lunch break) is patently ridiculous.

Then there is the fact that the audit is not the only evidence of these violations. There have actually been complaints from employees who say they are forced to work through what should be their mealtimes. In the context of complaints, you certainly have to take the numbers more seriously.

This is yet more evidence that there is no free lunch. Consumers are bargain hungry; but more and more I am beginning to think that bargain-hunting is a cruel practice. If a product is cheap, it is almost always because someone, somewhere along the line, is getting screwed. This sets up some difficult decisions for the poor.

I live on a very modest income. Others live on much less. It is difficult to preach to people that they should not stretch their hard-earned dollars to the max by shopping at places like Wal-Mart. But we have to realize that the people being screwed in order to make those prices plummet are the very same lower-income people trying to stretch their buck.

This is not a question of the wealthy, Whole-Foods-shopping elite demanding that the poor pay more for life's necessities. This is a question of the proletariat looking out for ourselves. Don't shop at Wal-Mart.

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