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INVESTIGATION Labor Department will review Wal-Mart case



Published: Sat, February 19, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



Wal-Mart is welcoming the probe, a company spokesman said.

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Federal investigators will review a $135,540 settlement the government reached with Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's biggest retailer, over accusations that the company violated child labor laws.

The investigation was sought by Rep. George Miller. The California Democrat had criticized the deal made public Feb. 12 because it provided that Wal-Mart would receive 15 days notice in most cases before the Labor Department investigated employee complaints of wage and hour violations.

Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said the two-week window could give Wal-Mart a chance to sweep violations under the rug.

"We plan to review the circumstances surrounding this agreement," Labor Department Inspector General Gordon S. Heddell wrote in a letter to Miller. The congressman's office released the letter Friday.

Company 'welcomes' review

The letter didn't offer details on the scope or timing of the review. David Pine, a spokesman for the inspector general's office, said the investigation was already under way but declined further comment.

Wal-Mart spokesman Gus Whitcomb said the Bentonville, Ark., company welcomed the review.

"We're confident the inspector general will conclude the agreement is fair and reasonable and is the result of arm's length negotiations," Whitcomb said in a statement. "What is truly unfortunate is that the attention focused on this agreement has now moved from being about compliance, which is where our attention is focused, to being a new forum for people who simply don't like us."

The claims, at 25 stores in Arkansas, Connecticut and New Hampshire between 1998 and 2002, had to do with teenage workers who used hazardous equipment such as chain saws, paper balers or forklifts.

One case in New Hampshire involved a youth who is said to have been using a chain saw to trim Christmas trees. A majority of the cases in Connecticut involved allegations of children loading paper balers.

Child labor laws prohibit anyone under 18 from operating hazardous equipment.

'Notorious violator'

Wal-Mart denied the allegations but agreed to pay the penalty.

"For the good of Wal-Mart workers, I am pleased that the inspector general has agreed to look into this questionable arrangement," Miller said. "It is unacceptable that the Department of Labor would choose to bestow special privileges on Wal-Mart, one of the nation's most notorious violators of labor laws and minimum labor standards."

Miller also complained that the Labor Department kept the settlement secret for a month, and he said the payment was too small -- amounting to 15 seconds worth of Wal-Mart sales in 2004. The Labor Department has said it wanted to wait until the settlement was paid to make it public.




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