Judge To Hear Class-Action Arguments in Wal-Mart Discrimination Suit

September 24, 2003 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - US District Court Judge Martin Jenkins is scheduled to hear arguments today in considering whether or not a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employment discrimination suit will receive class-action status.

Stemming from a lawsuit filed by six female plaintiffs in June 2001, the class could cover as many as 1.6 million women who work or worked at the company’s US stores at any time since December 1998. If the San Francisco-based court grants class-action status, it would represent the largest employment discrimination suit in US history, according to an Associated Press report.

The suit alleges a gender pay gap perpetuated by a culture of bias at Wal-Mart’s Bentonville, Arkansas, headquarters that flows through to nearly every store. Among the evidence offered by an expert for the plaintiffs is women store managers being paid $89,280 in 2001, $16,402 less than male counterparts and female cashiers making $13,831, or $694 less than men. Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest private sector employer, and perhaps as a result, has been the target of a number of employment-related complaints over the past several years (See Wal-Mart Female Managers Detail Bias Allegations ).

Further, the plaintiffs point to their data that shows only 14% of Wal-Mart store managers – the top job at the company’s 3,468 local stores – are women. Overall, more than 50% of competitors’ managers are women but Wal-Mart is at about 35% of the 1.1 million people the retail giant employs, the plaintiffs claim.

Included in the suit is testimony from more than 100 depositions of executives and the voluntary declarations of 110 female employees. Some women described being discouraged from applying for management positions and jobs in sporting goods, meat departments and other areas dominated by men.

Others recalled instances where male managers not only acknowledged, but also endorsed a pay gap between men and women. One woman quoted in the brief said she asked why her pay was lower than a less qualified male worker. Her department manager’s reply: “You don’t have the right equipment. You aren’t male, so you can’t expect to be paid the same.”

Also included in the allegations:

  • Female managers were required to attend strip clubs with male colleagues on business trips.
  • Women declaring they had to take business meetings at Hooters.
  • The top brass of Wal-Mart’s Sam’s Club stores referred to female employees in weekly executive meetings as “little Janie Qs” and “girls,” even after a woman vice president complained. The executive, who no longer works at Wal-Mart, said her complaint earned her a warning against being overly judgmental.

Wal-Mart Response

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Mona Williams denied any pervasive bias within the company and disputed the plaintiffs’ analysis of the evidence. She said that experts who analyzed payroll data for the company found that “nine out of 10 times, women and men are paid equally,” and that women are promoted at a rate consistent with the rate at which they apply for positions.

Until recently, Williams said the company has left hiring, pay and other employment responsibilities largely up to store managers. If there is truth to any of the allegations of bias, Williams said, such instances would be the fault of individual managers whose behavior did not reflect the intent of the corporation.

Further, Williams said the declarations filed by women in support of the suit amount to a tiny fraction of the 700,000 women currently employed by the company. “They are exceptions, and we cannot afford to be judged by these exceptions,” Williams said.

The plaintiffs are seeking back wages equivalent to what they believe they would have earned if not for the alleged bias, in addition to compensation for promotions allegedly lost because of discrimination. Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they had not calculated the possible damages, but, if the case becomes a nationwide class action and any liability is found, they could add up quickly. In the largest settlement of such a case, Voice of America agreed three years ago to pay $531 million to 1,100 women rejected for jobs at the former US Information Agency.