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Walmart's Black Friday troubles and its terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week

Walmart isn’t having a good week – especially when it comes to news about how the company treats its workers. We aren’t so impressed.

The Huffington Post’s Dave Jamieson has an article today about how five years after a Walmart employee was trampled to death by unruly crowds on Black Friday, the Big Box Superstore has yet to pay its measly $7,000 fine – the maximum fine OSHA is allowed to elicit for a “serious” safety violation, even in the case of a worker’s death.  

But with sales of $466 billion last fiscal year and a profit of $17 billion last year, the $7,000 OSHA fine is merely a drop in the bucket – or, as Jamieson so cleverly describes, it represents little more than a single store's rounding error.

But it isn’t about the fine, said Celeste Monforton, a National COSH ally who lectures for George Washington University. “It's this interest in seeing how far Walmart can push back against the decision,” she said.

You see, if Walmart paid the fine, it would accept its role in the negligence that led to that worker’s death. (By the way, the worker killed on Black Friday was a temporary worker new on the job.) 

So, Walmart continues to fight this minuscule fine.

“Walmart appealed the OSHA fine, arguing that the dangers of their Black Friday crowds couldn't have been predicted. OSHA officials later told The New York Times that the agency had devoted 4,700 hours of legal work to litigating the $7,000 penalty,” Jamieson wrote. “An administrative law judge eventually upheld the fine, ruling that the Black Friday crowds should have been a recognized hazard for the retailer.

“But Walmart hadn't exhausted its legal options. In 2011, the company appealed the fine to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, an agency wholly independent from OSHA that can choose to consider appeals. The case remains there to this day. Until a penalty is affirmed, a company doesn't have to pay the fine or technically even fix the problem.”

This is another issue National COSH is pushing to remedy. We strongly believe in abatement during contest -- meaning that employers cited by OSHA should be required to fix alleged hazards even while contesting the fine to minimize the opportunity that workers could encounter dangerous conditions on the job. Abatement during contest already is the law of the land in Washington State and Oregon. California Gov. Jerry Brown recently vetoed such a proposal in the Golden State. National COSH urges additional states to adopt abatement during contest rules.

In the meantime, each year OSHA sends letters to major retailers as well as retail and fire associations nationwide reminding employers and fire chiefs about the potential hazards involved with large crowds at retail stores during the holiday season when sales events attract a higher number of shoppers. Retailers are encouraged to use the safety guidelines provided in the OSHA fact sheet they received, "Crowd Management Safety Guidelines for Retailers," in addition to their own procedures.

Yet, as the Black Friday sales creep earlier and earlier – several stores announcing that the sales will actually start on Thanksgiving itself – the consumer craze is likely to increase. Retailers should have appropriate safety measures in place to protect workers whose holidays have been shortened or revoked. 

P.S. This isn’t a week I’d want to be on Walmart’s PR staff. Consider the attention a Cleveland store has received for its Thanksgiving food drive for workers (even mocked on the Colbert Report); a viral graphic comparing Costco’s business practices with Walmart’s (spoiler: Walmart doesn’t look good); a safety audit finding that Walmart-supplying factories in Bangladesh aren’t up to par; and a new Demos report arguing that Walmart could afford to pay its workers an additional $5.83 an hour—to reach the modest goal of the equivalent of $25,000 a year for a full-time employee—by making one change: ending the company’s share-buyback program.

Those poor PR staffers need a vacation. Do you think Walmart gives them Thanksgiving off?

* Flickr photo by Laurieofindy

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