By  on March 17, 2010

SAN FRANCISCO — Polo Ralph Lauren Corp.’s attorney vigorously rebutted charges the company should have paid California employees for time spent waiting for routine antitheft security checks at the end of their workdays as a class-action lawsuit trial began Tuesday in U.S. District Court here.

Instances of unpaid overtime and miscalculation of commissions are also being alleged in the lawsuit, which is seeking $17 million in back wages and penalties. The case involves 6,700 people employed at Polo full-line and outlet stores in the state between May 2002 and January 2009.

In opening arguments, Polo’s attorney William Goines told the six-person jury that claims of waits up to 15 minutes for security checks are exaggerated, and those involving unpaid overtime and commissions are incorrect. He also questioned the validity of conclusions drawn from a survey undertaken on behalf of the plaintiffs, as well as the survey size — only 300 of 1,600 questionnaires were completed.

“These conclusions have serious, serious, serious flaws,” Goines said, casting doubt on claims of long waits by workers to be cleared to leave by a manager or security guard. Additionally, if employees felt they should be paid, they could have filed a time-clock correction form with human resources, but did not, he asserted.

“Polo wants to pay its employees for their work time. It wants to have accurate time records. We are a public company,” Goines said, noting evidence will show “a significant number of this class had zero to very minimum wait time.”

Patrick Kitchin, attorney for the suing employees, painted a different picture of workers forced to wait and missing their buses and ferries home. He said repeated complaints to security and managers were ignored. “A lot of times the managers would say, ‘I’ll be with you in a minute,’” Kitchin told jurors. “People would have to page them and page them again.”

Among a number of overtime issues to be considered, Kitchin raised skepticism about Polo’s program, since discontinued, of withholding commissions until the amount surpassed the employee’s base pay. Called “arrears,” the practice lasted from 2004 to 2006.

Goines shrugged off the arrears commission issue. “It didn’t motivate sales people to sell more,” Goines told the jury, saying Polo has changed tack with a program of setting goals.

The trial is expected to last a month with several former and current Polo employees set to testify. The suit was originally filed in 2006.

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