Friday, May 15, 2009

Costco Sued for Allegedly Locking Employees in Stores

Costco Wholesale Corp., the largest U.S. warehouse club, was sued for false imprisonment by a California worker who claims employees are locked in stores against their will for 15 minutes after they’re off the clock.

Mary Pytelewski, a cash register clerk at a Costco warehouse in San Marcos, California, alleges the company violates wage laws by refusing to allow workers to clock back in and be paid for the extra time they’re locked in while managers close stores, according to a lawsuit filed today in state court in San Diego.

“They’ve been locking people in at the end of the day, clocking people out and making them wait for a manager to let them out,” David Sanford, Pytelewski’s lawyer, said in a phone interview. “They claim it’s because of loss prevention or security concerns. That doesn’t make any sense. Even if you have loss prevention or security concerns, you still have to pay people.”

The complaint, which seeks to represent several hundred Costco workers in California, asks for $50 million in back pay plus damages from 2005 until the present.

Pytelewski also claims she was retaliated against when she first complained about the alleged practice.

Bob Nelson, a spokesman for Issaquah, Washington-based Costco, didn’t immediately return a voice-mail message seeking comment.

3,700 Class Actions

Polo Ralph Lauren Corp., the maker of Ralph Lauren designer clothing, was sued by four former employees in 2006 for allegedly keeping workers locked in stores after they finished their shifts and failing to pay overtime. The case was certified as a class action on behalf of 6,000 California workers and is pending in federal court in San Francisco. The company has said the case is without merit.

The false imprisonment claim was dropped from the group lawsuit and pursued by a single employee who received a $12,000 settlement in April on all claims, according to court documents.

A group of janitors in New Jersey sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in 2003, alleging involuntary servitude in a lawsuit claiming the company kept labor costs down by using illegal immigrants and forcing them to work off-the-clock after hours. The immigrant janitors claimed Wal-Mart locked them in stores against their will.

A federal judge threw out the servitude claims. The lawsuit is pending on behalf of 100 employees seeking unpaid wages.

Wal-Mart Verdict

More than half of the 3,700 class-action, or group, lawsuits filed from 2002 to 2005 in California were complaints accusing employers of violating rules for overtime wages or meal and rest breaks, according to a March study by the California court system and the University of California Hastings College of Law in San Francisco.

Wal-Mart, General Motors Corp., American Express, Sprint Nextel Corp. and dozens of other companies have faced such lawsuits in California. An Oakland, California, jury ordered Wal-Mart to pay $172 million in 2005 in a class-action lawsuit brought by workers who claimed they were illegally prevented from taking meal breaks. The company has appealed the verdict.

The case is Pytelewski v. Costco, California Superior Court (San Diego).