Monday, December 05, 2005

Just when you think they might have bought a clue...

WalMart, long vilified as an abuser of its workers, cause for the failure of numerous local businesses, indirectly supporting censorship, seen as a cause of many layoffs of their suppliers, and the target of many "...It could only happen at WalMart.." comments about the number of bizarre attacks and other violence that seem to occur at their stores, just doesn't seem to know how to deal with presenting a positive image to the public.

Lately they have been faced with a new documentary that purports to show the cost of the "WalMart Way," (a movie I haven't seen yet) a Jib-Jab cartoon aimed squarely at them (which I *have* seen), revelations that executives knew that contractors were using illegal aliens as cleaners in the stores, and the publication of a very damaging memo by the HR director that was presented to their Board of Directors that laid out personnel policies of subtle discrimination against older workers, because they use too many benefits and are paid more, agreed that many of the policies they have leave "associates" with too few hours for company group health plans and too little money to buy individual plans (and thus are forced onto the public health insurance rolls).

Their most substantive response has been to establish a "war room" and try to present a better image.

Well, some people evidently didn't get the message.

According to a story in Friday's (12/2/2005) St Petersburg Times, "Racial profiling feared at Wal-Mart," the head of HR at a Florida unit of GAF Materials Corporation was kept cooling his heels for two hours at a WalMart service counter, and arrested for allegedly presenting a forged check.

Reginald Pitts, the HR manager for that GAF unit, was at the WalMart store to pay for, and pick up, the GAF unit's supply of gift cards that are used as employee incentives and as corporate gifts. The order, this time, was for $13,600.

Now, normally, when you walk into a retail store, and walk up to the service desk, and say you want to pay for and pick up $13K worth of merchandise you would expect to be escorted to a comfortable office and at least be given a cup of joe.

Not at *this* WalMart.

At least, it appears, not if you are black.

Normally an assistant to Mr. Pitts (the assistant is a white woman) picks up the cards, but she was on vacation. So Mr. Pitts went down to pick up the cards himself. ($13k is not an exchange that you usually leave for Chuck from the mailroom to deal with, especially when corporate accounting has issued the check for *your* department).

From the St. Pete article:

GAF has been spending about $50,000 a year on gift cards at the Wal-Mart Supercenter at 11110 Causeway Blvd. in Brandon. For years GAF sent a white, female administrator to buy them without incident. This time, when she was on vacation the day before Thanksgiving, Pitts did the job himself. He phoned in the order for 520 cards, got the accounting department to issue Wal-Mart a $13,600 check and then encountered a royal hassle trying to exchange it for gift cards at the store.
For about two hours, store managers stalled on accepting the check for the already-printed gift cards, while Pitts stood waiting by the customer service desk. He had handed over his GAF business card, his driver's license and the toll-free numbers to GAF's bank. His accounting supervisor assured them over the phone that GAF, the nation's biggest roofing systems maker with revenues of $1.6-billion in 2004, was good for the check.

Two African-American Wal-Mart clerks watching all this from nearby told Pitts that several similarly sized transactions were made for other companies that day without delay, Pitts said.
Dressed in khaki pants and a blue button-down-collar dress shirt, Pitts finally got upset over the lengthy wait. He asked for the check back so he could go to another store. But store managers, who had kept huddled in a nearby office during most of his two-hour ordeal, refused to return it. The only explanation he got was that the store was having trouble "verifying" the check or who Pitts was.

Later, two Hillsborough County sheriff's deputies appeared. One grabbed Pitts by the arm. He objected to the rough handling and asked if he was being arrested.

"We need to talk with you about this forged check that you brought in here," Pitts recalled deputy Bryan Wells saying. Later Wells explained the reason for the firm arm grab: "Well, Wal-Mart called us and reported to us that you committed a felony, and that's the way we approach felons," Pitts recalled.

Within 19 minutes deputies reviewed the evidence, determined there was no grounds for a criminal charge and learned Wal-Mart would not press the issue further. Wells handed the check to Pitts.

"Our deputies didn't even see enough (of a case) to write a report," said Lt. Carmen Rivas, the shift commander. "We responded only because Wal-Mart called in a bad check report."

To road deputies, the dispatch code means a possible felony.

Wal-Mart store manager Mark Cornett, who could not be reached for comment Thursday, told Pitts that he only "did what he had to do" before saying "have a great day, sir," according to Pitts.

Pitts was so shaken that he called his boss, Dennis Branch, a regional vice president for GAF in Savannah, Ga. Branch called Cornett and confirmed Pitts' version of the story.

"I was appalled," Branch said. "He wouldn't answer questions like, "Do you call the sheriff every time you cannot verify a check?' He got very defiant. He would not apologize and eventually hung up on me. Reggie had given them the names of several GAF VPs who could vouch for him. All they did was call the GAF guard house number they found in the phone book," which was not answered.

Wal-Mart said it has opened its own investigation of the matter after Pitts called Wal-Mart's complaint line and GAF, based in Wayne, N.J., and a closely-held unit of G-I Holdings Inc., lodged a complaint. GAF, which has 26 plants around the country, employs about 125 people in Tampa.

"We are very concerned about the way Mr. Pitts was treated by Wal-Mart," said Patricia Kim, GAF vice president of employment and labor. "We are awaiting Wal-Mart's response."

Wal-Mart's critics were not surprised. Wal-Mart, like many large retail chains, has been confronted by employment and promotion discrimination suits. In Boston, one suit claims Wal-Mart engaged in a form of racial profiling to prevent shoplifting.

"There has been a string of news reports and lawsuits around the country alleging discrimination and racial profiling in Wal-Mart stores over the past several years," said Paul Blank, director of, a group backed by the United Commercial and Food Workers union that launched a campaign against the nonunion retailer in April. "Only time will tell if it's by policy or by practice."

So far, four Wal-Mart officials, including a regional vice president of operations at corporate headquarters in Bentonville, have called Pitts and apologized for the incident. But no one from the store did. And nobody from the company has offered an explanation of what happened.

"They have it all on tape someplace. I have been trying to find some reasonable explanation why they did this to me other than something racial," Pitts said. "So far they have not provided one."

$13K for this one transaction.

$50K /year for multiple years.

I can see being careful to verify a check of this size, but two hours?

And then it took the cops all of 20 minutes?

Come on guys, get that clue!

It must be nice to be able to just throw away that much revenue over your own bigotry.

Aint' the free market wunnerfull?

Oh, by the way -- for this year, at least, all that gift card business for the GAF unit will be going to Target.

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