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Wal-Mart Fined Over Child Labor

State Finds 11 Violations At Three Connecticut Stores

June 18, 2005
By RITU KALRA, Courant Staff Writer

Wal-Mart stores in Connecticut have once again been cited for breaking child labor laws.

The state Department of Labor fined three Wal-Mart stores - in Hartford, Putnam and Norwalk - for 11 violations of state child labor laws between February 2003 and February 2005.

Eight minors in the Hartford and Norwalk stores were found to be working excessive hours and without proper working papers. In the Putnam store, three children younger than 18 had operated power-driven balers and compactors. None of them was injured.

The latest violations come on the heels of a controversial settlement reached earlier this year between the federal labor department and the retailing giant over child labor provisions.

Labor officials said Wal-Mart ranked among the top 10 child labor law violators in Connecticut, but trailed several restaurant chains.

Wal-Mart, which topped $10 billion in profit last year, agreed to pay a $135,540 fine in January to settle charges of federal child labor violations in Connecticut, Arkansas and New Hampshire. The violations spanned four years and involved at least 80 minors using machinery such as chainsaws and forklifts that are deemed hazardous under federal labor law. Those violations occurred in 25 stores, 21 of them in Connecticut.

The Putnam store also was cited in that probe.

Provisions in that settlement that appeared to give Wal-Mart privileged information about future investigations sparked outrage across the country, and prompted Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal to call for a separate state investigation.

That investigation took four months and was much more involved than state inspectors had anticipated, the labor department said. Investigators reviewed records covering two years, during which Wal-Mart employed 337 minors in its 32 Connecticut stores. Investigators interviewed each of those minors still working for the retailer and sent questionnaires to those no longer there.

"The evidence vindicates our call and urging for an investigation and shows clear legal basis for action," Blumenthal said during a press conference Friday.

A spokesperson for Wal-Mart said the firm was aware of the work-hour violations, but was bewildered by the charges of children using hazardous equipment.

"We were aware of some Department of Labor investigations," said spokesman Marty Heires. "But we did not get any communication from the attorney general, so we're kind of shooting in the dark here," he said.

The state fined Wal-Mart $3,300 for its 11 violations - the maximum allowed under state law. Wal-Mart so far has paid $2,400 for the work-hour and working-paper violations. The remaining $900 fine was levied this week, once state investigators had gathered sworn statements from the three minors who were operating compactors illegally.

The investigators discovered that since the federal audit, Wal-Mart has cut back on the number of minors it employs. The company also has implemented a software system to track the time cards of workers younger than 18 and has issued special keys for and labeled all the machinery deemed hazardous for those workers.

"The system seems to have worked to the point where they got the violations down, but we're still of the opinion that a company of their vast resources should have no violations of child labor laws altogether," said Gary Pechie, director of the state labor department's wage and hour division. "Obviously it wasn't of the magnitude that the feds found, but we were still surprised to find any."

Although restaurants such as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts handily beat Wal-Mart in breaking state laws regarding the number of hours minors are allowed to work, Pechie said, Wal-Mart is no newcomer to the issue.

"I would not say they're in the top five, but they are in the top 10" among the state's routine violators, he said.

Blumenthal's news conference regarding the issue took both Rell and the state labor department by surprise.

"We didn't know about it," said Rell's spokesman Rich Harris.

Blumenthal told reporters the state investigation was not yet complete and that additional violations might be found. He mentioned nothing about the $3,300 fine.

"Obviously he was jumping the gun a little bit. He didn't have all the information," said Pechie, adding that the investigation was wrapped up early Friday and that Rell had just been handed a copy of the investigation report hours before Blumenthal's announcement.

Blumenthal said he had known about the fines, but had assumed the labor department was making a separate announcement prior to his conversation with reporters.

The attorney general also said he had received documents pertaining to the federal investigation after filing several requests under the Freedom of Information Act, but that much of the information in the files had been blacked out.

Meanwhile, the inspector general of the federal labor department is conducting an internal investigation of the settlement agreement reached with Wal-Mart in January. The agreement requires federal inspectors to give Wal-Mart 15 days' notice before initiating any future investigations, plus a 10-day abatement period to correct any violations. The internal audit is expected to be complete in early August, a spokesperson said.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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