She's Taking on Walmart

Betty Dukes, 60, is the face of the largest gender-bias class-action lawsuit in U.S. history. The Root spoke to the woman who has big business on pins and needles.

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The last straw came in mid-1999, says Dukes. She needed change to make a small purchase during a break and asked a fellow colleague to open the cash register with a one-cent transaction. While Dukes says it was a common practice among Walmart staff, she was demoted to cashier for misconduct, resulting in the pay cut. She once again went to the district manager, stating that the punishment was too severe and was in retaliation for her numerous prior complaints. Nothing was done, she said.

In fact, she began to see her hours rolled back, making it hard for her to make ends meet. Dukes, who is divorced and childless, eventually moved in with her mother. "It was just so outrageous," she says. "From that point, I started looking for some venue of change to hear my call."

She found the platform with the Equal Rights Advocates and the Impact Fund, who have represented Dukes and the thousands of other women who have come forward to share their story.

The Sky Wasn't the Limit

Take Edith Arana, 49, who had worked in retail for more than 10 years before joining a California-based Walmart store. She was hired as a personnel manager, but she also filled in for numerous departments. That included handling store merchandising and payroll. "We were always told for the beginning that this is a family-based company. This is a company that you can come in as a cashier, and the sky is the limit," Arana says.

However, Arana says those promises weren't kept, and she quickly hit the ceiling when she pushed to run a department within stores. The promotion would have helped her chances to get in the company's assistant management training program -- and eventually oversee an entire store. The higher-paying position would have also helped her care for her dying husband and three young children at the time.

While store management alluded to her chances of moving up and taking part in the training, she says she consistently was passed over for promotions that were given to men with less experience. Many of the available positions she discovered after they were filled, and those she applied for, she didn't even get an interview. She says when she inquired about the reasoning behind the decisions, she was offered little explanation, if any at all.

The Stakes for Big Business

Walmart has fought hard against the allegations -- arguing that the discrimination cases brought by the six women were isolated instances, and not a company policy. "We do not believe the claims alleged by the six individuals who brought this suit are representative of the experiences of our female associates," said Jeff Gearhart, executive vice president and general counsel. The retailer is considering its options, "including seeking review from the Supreme Court," he said.

Supporters of the retailer have lined up in its corner, just as its staunch critics have backed the plaintiffs.