Standing Up to the Waltons 

Christine Kwapnoski toiled for Wal-Mart for two decades with little advancement. Now she faces the world's top company in an unprecedented class action.

The battle lines are drawn. In this corner: Wal-Mart, the biggest corporation in the world, backed by the legal stylings of Paul, Hastings, Janofsky & Walker, one of the world's top-thirty-grossing law firms. In that corner: Berkeley nonprofit law firm the Impact Fund, and a potential pool of 1.6 million irate women. It's going to be one heck of a fight.

The Impact Fund, with the support of five other law firms across the country, has filed the largest civil rights suit in history against the retail giant, accusing it of paying women less and promoting them to management less frequently than their male counterparts. "Nobody is as bad as they are," says Impact Fund attorney Jocelyn Larkin. "They stand alone in terms of their completely reprehensible behavior."

The nonprofit backs up this tough talk with studies it commissioned in preparation for the suit: Although two-thirds of Wal-Mart employees are women, only about one-third of its managers are. And only about one in seven store managers is female. In 2001, Larkin says, Wal-Mart had fewer women in management than its competitors had back in 1975. What's more, women in nonmanagerial positions earn an average of $1,100 a year less than their male co-workers.

The numbers proved persuasive to a federal judge, who late last month granted class-action status to the suit. Wal-Mart appealed the ruling last week, but if the suit goes forward, any woman employed by Wal-Mart since 1998 will be eligible to join. And if their stories are anything like that of Antioch's Christine Kwapnoski, they should make for some damaging testimony.

Kwapnoski is bakery cafe supervisor at the Sam's Club in Concord -- Sam's is Wal-Mart's warehouse-store division -- and one of six lead plaintiffs in the suit, four of whom worked in Bay Area stores. Kwapnoski has worked for the company almost eighteen years -- as a cashier, in auditing, in claims, in the freezer section, and on the loading dock. She started her Wal-Mart career in her home state of Missouri, and moved to California in 1994 after being promised an extra $2 an hour to help open the new Concord store. But the raise never materialized. When she complained to her manager, he told her tough luck -- she hadn't gotten the promise in writing.

Kwapnoski reached her breaking point several years ago after learning that a male colleague with half as many years on the job was making only a nickel an hour less. Her managers wouldn't listen. She says she continued to be passed over for promotions, and that new male employees whom she'd trained were chosen for advancement instead. "I was told the males had families to support," she says. "I'm a divorced mother of two -- I have a family to take care of, too."

When she asked her superiors what she needed to do to be considered for promotion, Kwapnoski recalls being told to "blow the cobwebs off of her makeup" and "doll up," comments that struck her as not only sexist but absurd, considering most of her colleagues left work covered in forklift grease or dirt from handling incoming merchandise. A man with her experience and seniority should have been a Wal-Mart general manager by now, she says -- and that pays in the six digits.

Why didn't she quit? "The money I made at Sam's -- even though I was making less than men -- was still better than going to McDonald's or someplace else and starting over," Kwapnoski explains. Lining up a similar job with one of Wal-Mart's competitors proved equally difficult. Costco told Kwapnoski it wouldn't even talk to her until she'd quit her current job. That was too risky, so she stayed put. Instead, she took a slew of low-paid second jobs to make ends meet -- as a temp, a typist, in receiving at Toys R Us.

But she continued griping to her bosses about her stalled career. "I have always been outspoken about it, and that's what got me in trouble over the years. I got labeled a troublemaker and a bitch," she says. Even newly hired managers would tell her that her reputation preceded her, she recalls. Finally, a group of fellow dissatisfied employees nudged her towards, a Web site launched by the Impact Fund to find potential plaintiffs. At first she was reluctant to share her story: "I was kind of leery that there'll be a paper trail and Wal-Mart will find me," she says.

But she finally took the plunge. "I came to find out that there were not hundreds of other women, but millions of them having the same problems as mine. Some were even worse." Her eighteen-year saga carried weight, and when the firm filed its case in June 2001, Kwapnoski's name was at the top of it.

If it seems odd that a suit that originated in New Mexico against an Arkansas-based retailer was filed in California, there's a reason. In Arkansas, Larkin points out, Wal-Mart is the state's largest employer by far, and in rural areas it might be the only significant retail outlet. "If you had a high school education, you had no other job, and your mother, father, sister, and spouse might be working there as well, taking on the boss might mean moving out of town," Larkin says. In fact, the lawyers spent years seeking the right plaintiffs -- women like Kwapnoski who had concrete examples of discrimination and were willing to endure the public scrutiny.

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