California Regulators Fine Warehouse Operators for Wal-Mart

By SHELLY BANJO
Wall Street Journal

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued new penalties to operators of a warehouse that moves goods for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., citing safety violations such as blocked walkways and failure to provide workers with proper footwear.

Wal-Mart, which subcontracts work at the warehouse in Mira Loma, Calif., wasn’t named in the citations and the $60,000 in fines levied Thursday by California labor regulators.

Still, regulators said they are trying to get the attention of retailers and warehouse operators, in addition to temporary staffing agencies that provide manpower for the warehouses and have been cited in the past for warehouse problems.

“We want to send an important message to the warehouse industry that all parties could be held liable for the mistreatment of workers,” said Ellen Widess, chief of Cal/OSHA.

The Bentonville, Ark., retailer has argued that allegations against subcontractors should be directed at the third-party logistics and staffing companies with which it contracts.

Nevertheless, it said it contacted NFI over the summer when it learned of worker concerns at the warehouse to “reiterate our expectations that all laws be followed,” said Dan Fogleman, a Wal-Mart spokesman. “It is our understanding that NFI has already addressed the concerns.”

Wal-Mart said it is implementing an ongoing audit process at warehouses operated by third parties to inspect safety procedures and ensure that equipment is in good working order.

A spokeswoman for NFI Industries, Cherry Hill, N.J., which operates the warehouse and was fined $27,830, said the company would appeal the fines. NFI also has said it would appeal a previous $250,000 safety fine from Cal/OSHA at a nearby warehouse in Chino, Calif.

Warestaff, the Raritan, N.J., temp agency that provided some of the warehouse workers to NFI and was fined $29,140, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The new fines are the latest in a series of enforcement actions, protests and lawsuits complaining about poor treatment of workers at warehouses that sort and ship merchandise for stores shelves and fulfill online orders.

Helping to fund the workers’ efforts against Wal-Mart is Warehouse Workers United, a group backed by a coalition of labor unions that includes United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which has previously tried to unionize Wal-Mart employees.

The violations at the Mira Loma warehouse, the agency said, included blocked walkways, failure to provide foot protection for workers near forklifts, failure to maintain injury and illness prevention programs and the failure to train workers on how to prevent heat illnesses.

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