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Wal-Mart Plaintiff Still Loves the Store

Worker who is spearheading a landmark gender bias suit says she just wants a chance to advance.

June 24, 2004|Donna Horowitz, Eric Slater and Lee Romney | Special to The Times

PITTSBURG, Calif. — Less than 24 hours after a federal judge ruled that 1.5 million women who have worked for Wal-Mart could pursue a class-action gender discrimination suit, the lead plaintiff in the case was back on the job here Wednesday nattily dressed, quick with a smile and talking about how much she likes the company she's suing.

All Betty Dukes wanted, the 10-year veteran of the company said, was "the opportunity to advance myself with Wal-Mart."

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Martin J. Jenkins in San Francisco ruled that the suit originally filed by Dukes and five other women could be expanded to virtually every woman who has worked at the world's largest company since late 1998. The suit alleges that Wal-Mart pays women less than men for performing the same job, passes over women to promote less-qualified men and retaliates against women who complain.

The judge's ruling set the stage for what could be the giant retailer's greatest test ever. The sheer number of plaintiffs means that a loss or even a settlement could cost the company billions of dollars.

As Dukes was receiving minor-celebrity treatment from customers and co-workers -- "Did you see my story in the paper today?" she asked customers, holding up a copy of a local newspaper -- officials from the Arkansas retail colossus emphasized that Tuesday's ruling did not address the merits of the case and said it would do nothing to influence the company's plans to expand in California and elsewhere.

"It really doesn't change anything," said Robert Mc- Adam, the firm's vice president for state and local government relations. "Nothing is different as it relates to our development plans or our prospects for growth in the state."

The company has weathered a series of high-profile tests, most recently in Inglewood, where Wal-Mart went so far as to ask voters to allow a Supercenter in their community only to be rejected. At the same time, other communities in the state have actively courted the retailer.

As Dukes smiled and welcomed customers to the store in this town of 48,000 about 40 miles northeast of San Francisco, many of the mixed emotions that Wal-Mart tends to evoke were in evidence around her.

Lorell Belarde, 39, seemed to embody the dichotomy of some customers.

"I really don't even like the store," said the property manager after a short shopping spree. "I don't like the company. They don't treat their employees right. They don't even treat the customer right.

"But," she added, "the price is reasonable."

Holly Hamilton pushed her shopping cart through the parking lot looking not unlike an ad for Wal-Mart. In her cart was almost everything the 27-year-old nurse would need for an upcoming camping trip: a fishing pole, beach towels, food and bottled water, all gathered at a single store for hard-to-beat prices.

Like many customers outside the Pittsburg store Wednesday, Hamilton did not know about Tuesday's ruling, but when told, she expressed some concern and said she might consider shopping elsewhere if a court determined the company discriminated against women.

During an afternoon break, Dukes, dressed in a black and tan outfit with a billowing red scarf, turned an upside down shopping cart into an impromptu chair.

"Wish you the best of luck, sweetie," a male customer called to Dukes in the store parking lot.

Dukes was hired at Wal-Mart a decade ago, with grand plans for a quick move up the ladder into management. Instead, she says, she was passed over for promotions repeatedly, as men with less experience landed the job.

But she makes $12.53 an hour -- an increase of more than 25% in the three years since the lawsuit was filed, thanks to generous raises. A volunteer minister, Dukes likes most of her co-workers and bosses, who "respect my right to pursue this matter." She likes most of the customers, most parts of the job. She works at Wal-Mart and shops at Wal-Mart, and loves the prices.

"All we're asking for is our day in court, and to let the evidence speak for itself."

The ruling, in which Jenkins said the "evidence raises an inference that Wal-Mart engages in discriminatory practices in compensation and promotion that affect all plaintiffs in a common manner," however, is by no means the company's first considerable trial. And even as the number of Wal-Mart critics appears to be growing, so does the number of its defenders -- and so does the company's reach.

One of the company's previous blows came in April, when Inglewood voters soundly defeated a sweeping initiative that would have allowed the company to build a Supercenter the size of 17 football fields without going through the traditional layers of city bureaucracy.

The company spent more than $1 million in its failed effort to pass the initiative, buying television commercials and handing out doughnuts, all for an election that drew just 12,000 voters. Opponents spent a fraction of that amount and won the contest, about 7,000 casting ballots against the proposal and 4,500 in favor.

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