More Health and Safety Violations at Wal-Mart Warehouses: Does Anyone See a Pattern?

The following article first appeared at Working In These Times, the labor blog of In These Times magazine. For more news and analysis like this, sign up to receive In These Times' weekly updates.

Workers stacking heavy boxes and driving forklifts in the dark.

Thick black dust that causes nosebleeds and vomiting.

Broken hand carts that give workers the choice between carrying heavy boxes by hand or struggling with carts so slow that they could be fired for not meeting strict piecework quotas.

Emergency exits blocked by stacks of boxes and pallets.

Workers stuck in stifling trailers for up to 30 minutes after heavy loaded pallets are stacked in front of the doors.

Filthy bathrooms and water fountains, and no time to fill up water bottles while working in 95-degree temperatures.

These are among the conditions documented at an Eastvale, California Walmart warehouse and outlined in a formal complaint filed with the California Department of Occupational Safety and Health on July 18 by the group Warehouse Workers United (WWU).

The complaint demands a “wall-to-wall on-site inspection” of the warehouse, which is run by the same company—National Distribution Centers of Delaware, Inc.—that operates the four California warehouses charged with scores of serious health and safety violations and fined $256,000 by the state in January 2012.

The violations and workplace policies described at the Eastvale warehouse are very similar to problems described at the other Walmart warehouses.

“We’ve talked to hundreds of workers and inevitably the Walmart warehouses have the same types of working conditions—problems around wage and hour, health and safety violations and ongoing pressure to lower costs,” WWU organizer Guadalupe Palma told Working In These Times. “Inevitably that gets pushed down onto the workers. These warehouses are trying to keep up with what Walmart is asking for just to compete in the industry.”

The complaint notes a July 12 incident involving worker Apolniar Rojas, who was seriously injured as he was backing a forklift out of a shipping container and the ramp he was backing onto slipped away. A passing manager told him not to go to the office until he had finished his job, according to the complaint, and then he was told to go to a Concentra Urgent Care Clinic affiliated with the warehouse 2.5 miles away. He had no car and could not find a ride on his own, so he walked in pain to the clinic, where he was diagnosed with a lumbar sprain, strained neck and shoulder sprain.

The complaint notes that workers are regularly sent home after injuries without being told of their rights to be examined and covered under workers compensation laws. It says workers are told they will be laid off if “they cannot be counted on” to work with an injury. It also says workers are forced to drive forklifts and trucks without the proper training, and cites one worker—Miguel Gonzalez—who was seriously injured and then suspended for three days after a supervisor ordered him to drive a forklift without training. The complaint also notes that speed limits on forklifts are not enforced, and workers are forced to drive them dangerously at top speed or risk demotion.

Like Gonzalez, many workers apparently find themselves in catch 22 situations. Palma said:

There’s definitely a lot of pressure that gets placed from Walmart to move more boxes at higher rates of speed, and that leads to injuries. It’s not sustainable for a worker to continue to work at that pace without getting injured. Whether they report the injury or not, there’s retaliation. If they don’t report the injury they’ll try to keep up but they could be terminated or retaliated against if they’re not keeping up with the pace. And by continuing to work, they exacerbate the injury. If they do report the injury, there’s also retaliation and they often don’t get adequate medical care.

The complaint also notes that workers are forced to pay for safety equipment out of pocket, with a photo of a price list showing $5 for a safety vest, $11 for an extra large vest, $4 for gloves and even $1 for four pens. The document includes many photos of obviously broken—even mangled—handcarts, ramps and other equipment.

The Eastvale warehouse does not actually store goods on site, but rather receives them by truck from the ports of L.A. and Los Angeles and redistributes them for shipping to Walmart and Sam’s Club stores. About 60 workers are on duty at a time at the 24-hour facility, with most of them loading and unloading boxes and some driving forklifts and tractors, the complaint notes. Like most warehouses, it involves a complicated ownership and staffing structure. Industry critics note that such structures allow major companies like Walmart to avoid responsibility for the working conditions and pay rates in their warehouses, and facilitate a heavy reliance on temporary staffing without job stability or benefits.

The complaint is on behalf of 17 specific workers, 16 of whom are referred to as “joint Employees” of Walmart Stores, Inc., National Distribution Centers of Delaware, and staffing companies SCI Companies Inc., Warestaff, LLC and Select Staffing. Offering a glimpse of the tangled structure, it says:

Both Warestaff and NFI managers often tell floor workers to move faster and punish workers for not meeting their quotas. NFI appears to be responsible for the maintenance of the facility, industrial trucks and other equipment. The property itself is owned by Swift. Workers who report injuries are given workers’ compensation forms labeled with the name SCI Companies, a Professional Employer Association, a subsidiary of which, PEO Management Group of Lawrenceville, GA, is also named on workers’ paychecks. At the same time, a Walmart Manager has been witnessed talking to the managers and workers about the facility’s production.

Last month WWU caught an employee of a high-powered public relations firm posing as a college student and a reporter to infiltrate the group. The company, Mercury Public Affairs, advertises itself as specializing in “Latino Communications.”

“That was pretty outrageous but unfortunately it’s not surprising,” said Palma. “We know that Walmart plays dirty.”


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