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The New York Times reported in a front page story on Sunday that Wal-Mart is dealing with yet another labor-related controversy - a 15-year-old policy that required 10 percent of its stores to be locked during the overnight hours, with graveyard shift employees forbidden to leave except in case of a fire.

The policy has had its share of victims, including a man who had his ankle smashed by heavy equipment, but hard to wait for an hour for a manager to be tracked down to open the doors. "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," the NYT writes.

Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president for communications, told the NYT that the policy was created to protect employees and stores in high-crime areas, and that the policy was recently altered "to ensure that every overnight shift at every store has a night manager with a key to let workers out in emergencies."

Ms. Williams also said that store managers, not headquarters, made the decision on whether to lock workers in.

However, the NYT interviewed current and former employees who disputed the company’s official version. Some told the paper that they worked in stores that were in perfectly safe communities, and that they believed the lock-in policy was to increase productivity - if people couldn't leave the store, they couldn't have a cigarette, couldn’t take an extended break, and couldn’t steal.

There also seems to be an increased sensitivity about press scrutiny. "Several employees said Wal-Mart began making sure that there was someone with a key seven nights a week at the Colorado Springs store and other stores starting Jan. 1, shortly after The New York Times began making inquiries about employees' being locked in," the paper reported.
KC's View:
At some point, one has to wonder about Wal-Mart's consistent defense that headquarters is never responsible for any of its problems, that they are always the fault of individual and renegade store managers. There's a point at which this defense strains credibility…and besides, you have to ask questions about what it is about Wal-Mart's culture that seems to encourage some managers to make the mistakes they seem to be making.

Though not everyone agrees.

One MNB offered the following criticism of our Wal-Mart coverage:

The use of the collective "Wal-Mart" in describing these actions is a personal affront to the thousands of men and women who do their job in a very lawful and company directed fashion. Yet they face the same blame for the few who do the acts.

But, it is the corporation that is being blamed. When it is shown that there is a company policy authorizing these acts, then will I admit I was wrong in criticizing the stories and their authors for writing them.

Still, this stuff keeps popping up.

Reuters reported over the weekend that there are three assistant managers at Wal-Mart stores in California who are suing the company, charging that they were forced to work overtime without pay and denied breaks.

The attorneys for the three managers are looking for the suit to be given class action status; the suit is separate from an Oregon case currently at trial, in which 140 employees are making a similar charge. In the California case, the managers charge that the company classified them as management so they wouldn’t qualify for overtime, and then forced them to do work that was decidedly non-managerial.

And, it is separate from a situation reported in The New York Times last week, in which an internal Wal-Mart report revealed extensive labor law violations - an audit that the company dismissed as being meaningless.