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ECONOMICS REPORT - Up to 1.6 Million Female Employees Could Be Included in Sex-Discrimination Case Against Wal-Mart - 2004-07-02

Broadcast: July 2, 2004

This is Bob Doughty with the VOA Special English Economics Report.

A class-action lawsuit is a legal case brought by a group of people who seek to represent a much larger group. In two-thousand-one, six women brought a case against Wal-Mart Stores. They say the company pays female employees, on average, five to fifteen percent less than men for the same work. Treating employees differently based on their sex is an illegal form of discrimination.

Last week a federal judge in California ruled that the case can go forward as a class action. It could become the biggest sex-discrimination lawsuit in American history. It could involve as many as one-point-six million women employed by Wal-Mart now or in the past. These include the six who brought the case.

Wal-Mart is based in Bentonville, Arkansas. It is the largest private employer in the world. It has more than one-million employees. Wal-Mart sells all kinds of low-price goods in its stores. The company reported profits of nine-thousand-million dollars last year.

Wal-Mart says it has no policy of discrimination against women. It says decisions about jobs are usually made locally at its more than three-thousand stores across the country.

Women make up about two-thirds of all the Wal-Mart workers who are paid by the hour. But only about one-third of supervisors are women. And women represent just fourteen percent of the top officials in the company.

The percentage of women in top jobs is twenty points lower than the average of the twenty largest sellers in the country. Lawyers for the women presented these numbers based on information reported to the Department of Labor. Wal-Mart says women do not seek top positions as often as men.

Judge Martin Jenkins in San Francisco did not rule on the arguments in the case. Wal-Mart said his ruling simply showed that the judge believes the case meets the legal requirements for a class action. The company said it would appeal.

Wal-Mart argues that such a large class action is not fair. It says the court would need years to hear all the evidence. The company wants the right to answer claims individually.

If the case remains a class action, legal experts say pressure will build on Wal-Mart to reach a settlement. That could mean paying thousands of millions of dollars to current and former employees. But a settlement would avoid a trial, and the risk of having to pay even more.

This VOA Special English Economics Report was written by Mario Ritter. This is Bob Doughty.