Wal-Mart Fined $172 Million Over Meal Breaks

A California jury has fined Wal-Mart $172 million for not ensuring that its workers ate lunch.

Jury Rules Wal-Mart Must Pay $172 Million Over Meal Breaks (NYT)

A California jury on Thursday ordered Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, to pay $172 million in damages for failing to provide meal breaks to nearly 116,000 hourly workers as required under state law.

[…]

California law requires that employers provide a meal break of 30 minutes for every five hours on the clock, Ms. Grant said. If the break is shorter than that, provided late or not at all, the employer must pay an hour’s pay, she said.

[…]

“Wal-Mart has since taken steps to ensure all associates receive their meal periods, including adopting new technology that sends alerts to cashiers when it is time for their meal breaks,” the statement read. “The system will automatically shut down registers if the cashier does not respond.”

Wal-Mart, like any other company, should be required to comply with the law. But, my word, what a stupid law this is. What if a worker would prefer to work through his break and go home early? Or what if the store is incredibly busy and delaying the lunch break a few minutes would be more efficient?

I’m not an hourly worker and have never had a job, aside from attendance at military schools, where my lunch break was monitored by the boss. But I eat lunch more than five hours after getting on the job most days. Some days, I’m too busy to eat lunch until late in the afternoon, if at all. Do cashiers get hungrier than knowledge workers? (I’ve certainly stood on my feet for more than five hours at a time, both as an Army officer and as a college professor, so it’s not that.)

Now, if Wal-Mart is systematically forcing people to work through their lunch breaks and not paying them for the missed time–or even denying people the right to eat or take a restroom break on some systematic basis–that’s a different matter. But the facts presented in the article don’t give the impression that Wal-Mart did anything evil here other than failing to comply with a seemingly silly law.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ugh says:

    If the President can do it, why not Wal-Mart?

  2. Herb says:

    HEY Wal Mart:

    MERRY CHRISTMAS

  3. cirby says:

    I dunno –

    I work for a number of different companies and at many different locations, and when it comes to missing meal breaks, it’s almost always down to some manager or supervisor just plain being careless about scheduling.

    One of the guys I work for a lot is a nice fellow, but he’s also one of those guys who gets so wrapped up in The Job that he loses his appetite completely. When it hits noon or so, and everyone wants to get some food, he always gets that look of “why in the world would someone want to eat when there’s work to be done?” There’s always one more task that needs to happen immediately, and the idea of stopping for food is just plain alien to him.

    The “maybe they want to go home early” idea is okay, I guess, but from experience, very few people can keep doing repetitive, mindless work for eight hours straight with no food or other breaks – unless you want to accept the high error rate and lower productivity you get with that choice. “Toughing it out” generally results in sloppy work, and working long hours without meal breaks in some jobs causes a definite safety hazard (hungry people screw up more often).

  4. Bithead says:

    Maybe it’s just that nobody wants to eat there.

  5. Anderson says:

    JJ, I *have* worked hourly in retail, and I know people who’ve work at Wal-Mart.

    California had every right to weigh the interests of those few who might want to work straight through against the doubtless much larger number of people who want to take such breaks.

    If the state makes the breaks “voluntary,” then Wal-Mart can pressure employees not to take them. It’s not paternalism, it’s protection from an overreaching employer—and if any employer overreaches, it’s Wal-Mart. They’re not the devil or anything, but they play hardball on employment practices.

  6. Fersboo says:

    I too have worked retail and any employer should play hardball with thier employees or else not expect them to do anything.

    Kind of funny that they took this to a civil court instead of through CA’s labor agency.

    8,000,000 times that employees didn’t get thier required lunch break over a 4 year period? WOW, that is close to 5,500 employees a day, in CA alone! 10 to one this gets overturned on appeal.

  7. odograph says:

    Read “The World Is Flat” to get what I consider a market-friendly realist’s take on Wal Mart. A fragment (pg 137):

    Sam Walton bred not only a ruthless quest for efficiency in improving WalMart’s supply chain but also a degree of ruthlessness period. I am talking about everything from WalMart’s recently exposed practice of locking overnight workers into store, to its allowing WalMart’s maintenance contractors to use illegal immegrants as janitors, to its role as defendand in the largest lawsuit in history [etc.]

    My 2 cents is that it’s too bad that some (not all!) conservatives want to prop WalMart up as a model for ethical buisiness … when it isn’t. Promoting a ruthless company as ideal, just devalues the proponent.

    There are plenty of good, efficienty, companies out there who don’t stoop so often to this kind of BS.

  8. odograph says:

    Pfft. “efficient.”

  9. Dale B says:

    This explains what was going on at a part time hourly job I had for a while in college. I worked nights for 6 hours. The schedule was 2 hrs work, ten minute break, 2 hours work, 30 min for dinner, 2 hours work, 10 minute break, go home. They would even ring a bell at the begining and end of all the break periods and I was required to leave my work area during the breaks.

    I wanted to skip all the breaks and go home 40 min early. They wouldn’t budge an inch. I even had to stay for the last break. I thought they were just being anal retentive jerks. It was REALLY annoying.

    I quit that job.

  10. Anderson says:

    Fersboo endorses forcing workers to serve full shifts without breaks. Lovely. Two days before Christmas, at that.

  11. Bill says:

    I’m a right of center blogger who worked part-time for WalMart for almost two years. I actually support the law.

    Bill

  12. Fersboo says:

    Anderson endorses workers to slack off and not be productive, but hey, it isn’t going to hurt anyone, its not like the companies don’t have enough money, right?

    Anderson, I wasn’t saying that Wal-Mart shouldn’t be in compliance, but don’t you find that 5,500 employees within the state of California were denied thier state-mandated 30 minute break, on a daily basis for 4 years a bit, um, far-fetched?

    I have worked hourly in retail and on commission in retail and I know that many, I repeat many, retail employees are a waste of cells & tissue.

  13. Anderson says:

    Fersboo wasn’t saying that W-M shouldn’t comply? I said that W-M’s denials of breaks were “hardball” and Fersboo said that W-M should be playing hardball. Don’t know how I misunderstood that.

    don’t you find that 5,500 employees within the state of California were denied thier state-mandated 30 minute break, on a daily basis for 4 years a bit, um, far-fetched?

    How, exactly, is that far-fetched?

    Retail employees frequently are poor workers, not least because “poor” workers (in both senses of the word) are all the retail chains are willing to hire. Good managers use the carrot and the stick. W-M, and those who encourage “hardball,” are leaving out the carrot.

  14. Pat says:

    Here is an interesting commentary on the whole Wal-Mart situation…

  15. anjin-san says:

    Don’t know about Wal-Mart, but the restaurants often deny breaks to their employees. I suspect the pratice is widespread in retail…

  16. Troy says:

    I work union construction and in this harsh pysically demanding profision you need breaks. Try toating around lumber wearing tool bags that weigh 30lbs + and see if you dont get tired and hungry. unless your a chain smorker or crack head you’ll be begging for a couple of ten minute breaks and 30 min. lunch. part timers and desk joks if you want to skip lunch and break just quit you job, problem solved

  17. $172,000,000.00. Is there a correlation between loss of perspective and deep pockets? Or is it between loss of persepctive and Angry Left targets?

  18. Attila Girl says:

    What I minded was “sidework,” in the restaurant business. The stuff you have to do after you clock out and before you go home.

  19. Josh Cohen says:

    I hope my company notices this. We don’t have a meal break policy — you stop working and eat whenever you want, but you have to make sure that the system remains freshly updated throughout. I don’t mind doing it that way, but I’d like maybe a little something for it. Like being able to leave a half hour early, come in a half hour later, or make an extra half-hour worth of money.

  20. greg beckham says:

    One of the reasons there was such a huge number of affected employees is that being “employees at will” everyone is too terrified to speak out, that would violate the “team concept” and you would be ostricized or fired. It took the an investigation to find out how reaching the problem was. I heard Wal-Mart even alluded to the idea that employees themselves were at fault for not taking their breaks, like they love their job so much. In reality, when you are busy checking people it is hard to abandon the job and go look for your relief. It was supervision’s job to provide that relief and they failed. Much of it was deliberate.