75,000 current and former Wal-Mart employees in the state of Washington are receiving notices this week after class certification was affirmed on appeal. See Barnett v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., No. 01-2-24553-8 SEA (King County Superior Ct.). Plaintiffs allege that they were forced to work without pay during breaks and after their shifts had ended. Similar lawsuits have been filed in numerous states across the country, and are being tracked at the Wal-Mart Litigation Project website.
I recently finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, an expose about conditions for low-wage workers, including those at Wal-Mart. She describes Wal-Mart management as being very stringent about not engaging in "time theft" by taking unscheduled breaks, but never indicates that she was forced to work without pay. The book provides interesting commentary on the difficulties that low-wage workers have in making ends meet.
When I mentioned the book to a friend of mine, he expressed little sympathy and pointed out that there are plenty of opportunities for those motivated enough to get ahead in this country. While I agree that there are more opportunities in the U.S. than most anywhere else, Ehrenreich's point is that it shouldn't be so hard for low-wage workers to scrape by when they're working full time. Regardless of one's beliefs on the causes of the struggles of low-wage workers, I think most people would agree about the importance of complying with laws requiring payment of workers for the actual hours worked.