Sunday, January 18, 2004

Wal-Mart Enters 19th Century

Locks Workers In Overnight

It's hard to believe this kind of stuff goes on in the United States in the 21st century, and from the largest copany in the nation:
Looking back to that night, Michael Rodriguez still has trouble believing the situation he faced when he was stocking shelves on the overnight shift at the Sam's Club in Corpus Christi, Tex.

It was 3 a.m., Mr. Rodriguez recalled, some heavy machinery had just smashed into his ankle, and he had no idea how he would get to the hospital.

The Sam's Club, a Wal-Mart subsidiary, had locked its overnight workers in, as it always did, to keep robbers out and, as some managers say, to prevent employee theft. As usual, there was no manager with a key to let Mr. Rodriguez out. The fire exit, he said, was hardly an option — management had drummed into the overnight workers that if they ever used that exit for anything but a fire, they would lose their jobs.

"My ankle was crushed," Mr. Rodriguez said, explaining he had been struck by an electronic cart driven by an employee moving stacks of merchandise. "I was yelling and running around like a hurt dog that had been hit by a car. Another worker made some phone calls to reach a manager, and it took an hour for someone to get there and unlock the door."

The reason for Mr. Rodriguez's delayed trip to the hospital was a little-known Wal-Mart policy: the lock-in. For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, such as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers' wives have gone into labor.

"You could be bleeding to death, and they'll have you locked in," Mr. Rodriguez said. "Being locked in in an emergency like that, that's not right."

Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president for communications, said the company used lock-ins to protect stores and employees in high-crime areas. She said Wal-Mart locked in workers — the company calls them associates — at 10 percent of its stores, a percentage that has declined as Wal-Mart has opened more 24-hour stores.
Although Wal-Mart management claims that the lock-ins are to protect employees from crime in dangerous neighborhoods,
The main reason that Wal-Mart and Sam's stores lock in workers, several former store managers said, was not to protect employees but to stop "shrinkage" — theft by employees and outsiders.
This reasoning is depressingly similar to the 1990 catastrophe at the chicken processing plant in Hamlet, NC where more than 20 employees burned to death trying to claw themselves out of fire doors that had been locked to prevent employees from stealing chickens.

The fire exits at Wal-Mart are not locked (with a few exceptions), but employees are told that opening them will get them fired, unless there's a real fire.

And I can't believe that this is legal. According to a night supervisor
the Wal-Mart rule that generally prohibits employees from working more than 40 hours a week to avoid paying overtime played out in strange ways for night-shift employees. Mr. Cobb said that on many workers' fifth work day of the week, they would approach the 40-hour mark and then clock out, usually around 1 a.m. They would then have to sit around, napping, playing cards or watching television, until a manager arrived at 6 a.m.
Check out more outrage at Workers Comp Insider.