Monday, April 26, 2010

Sex discrimination case against Walmart moves forward

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled today that a class-action lawsuit against Walmart is permissible. This lawsuit is about sex discrimination and pay; it was filed in 2001 on behalf of six (or seven, reports vary) women. The suit "alleges that the women employed by the company face systemic sexism -- that they're paid less than men in comparable positions, receive fewer promotions and wait longer for promotions." The class-action status means that more than one million women could be part of it. I believe it could include any woman who worked at Walmart from Dec. 1998 to the present.

Now, obviously I'm no expert on this case, or in the field of law, nor do I have any crystal ball to say how this will turn out. So all I can offer here is my entirely unqualified opinion. I do, however, think there is something to this statement from Judge Sandra Ikuta, who wrote the dissenting opinion:
“No court has ever certified a class like this one, until now. And with good reason. In this case, six women who have worked in 13 of Wal-Mart’s 3,400 stores seek to represent every woman who has worked in those stores over the course of the last decade.”
It does seem kind of drastic, right? Then you see this a statement like this:
"Since it does not have a companywide policy of discrimination, Wal-Mart argued that women asserting gender bias should file individual lawsuits against individual stores."
Umm, of course you don't have policy of discrimination. That's illegal. That doesn't mean you don't have a companywide problem of discrimination.

Two things strike me here: One is the sub-headline on the ABC story, which says "Walmart Fears Suit Could Cost The Chain Billions." I get that money is always the bottom line for a company, especially a huge one like Walmart. But for one second can we entertain the possibility that these women's jobs cost the women money, in the form of lost wages? Perhaps paying them and promoting them properly in the first place would have saved Walmart money in the end?

Second, and it's kind of related, is Walmart's stance that each of the original plaintiffs should file individual lawsuits against the individual stores they worked for. Well of course that's what Walmart wants, because those are cases that can be cast aside in the press as "isolated incidents," and because every woman who faced discrimination probably doesn't have the time or money or other resources to file her own lawsuit, saving Walmart even more money and face. So the fact that this case is granted class-action and can move forward is huge. (And personally? I don't know how many lawyers there are out there who are willing to take on Walmart in a class-action suit this big who aren't pretty confident in their evidence. Thoughts on that?)

We'll just have to see how the court case goes to find out if Walmart discriminates and to what extent. Bad part is this case was filed in 2001 and it will probably still be years before the actual trial gets under way. Walmart is already saying it might appeal the circuit court's decision to the Supreme Court.

I know we just had Equal Pay Day, and I know I've written about Equal Pay Day twice in the last week. But I'm going to remind you, dear readers, one more time (and let's be honest, it probably won't be the last time) about the Paycheck Fairness Act. Read more about it here and here (PDF, contains great information) and then urge your representatives to pass it. The National Women's Law Center has a super easy form you can fill out and send. And if you're curious about the wage gap in your state, check out the AAUW's state-by-state map.

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