Lawyers representing about 116,000 former and current Wal-Mart Stores Inc. employees in California told a jury Monday that the world’s largest retailer systematically and illegally denied workers lunch breaks.
The suit in Alameda County Superior Court is among about 40 cases nationwide alleging workplace violations by Wal-Mart, and the first to go to trial.
Wal-Mart, which earned $10 billion last year, settled a lawsuit in Colorado for $50 million that contains allegations similar to those in California’s class action. The company also is accused of paying men more than women in a lawsuit pending in federal court in San Francisco.
The workers in the class-action suit over meal breaks are owed more than $66 million plus interest, attorney Fred Furth told the 12 jurors and four alternates.
“I will prove the reason they did this was for the God almighty dollar,” Furth said in his opening statement.
Nine jurors must side with the plaintiffs for them to prevail. Millions of dollars also are sought to punish the company for the alleged wrongdoing.
The case concerns a 2001 state law, which is among the nation’s most worker friendly. Employees who work at least six hours must have a 30-minute, unpaid lunch break. If they do not get that, the law requires that they be paid for an additional hour.
The lawsuit covers former and current employees in California from 2001 to 2005.
Wal-Mart declined to give an opening statement, reserving its right to give one later.
Its lawyers also declined to comment.
In court documents, the Bentonville, Ark., company claimed that workers did not demand penalty wages on a timely basis. Wal-Mart said that it did pay some employees their penalty pay and, in 2003, most workers agreed to waive their meal periods as the law allowed.
The company also said some violations were minor, such as demanding that employees punch back in from lunch and work during their meal breaks. In essence, workers were provided a shorter meal period than the law allowed.
The case does not claim that employees were forced to work off the clock during their lunch breaks.
Shares of Wal-Mart rose 14 cents to $44.01.