Looking back to that night, Michael Rodriguez still has trouble believing the situation he faced when he was stocking shelves overnight at the Sam's Club in Corpus Christi, Texas.
It was 3 a.m., Rodriguez recalled, some heavy machinery had just crushed his ankle, and he had no idea how he would get to the hospital.
The Sam's Club, a Wal-Mart subsidiary, had locked its overnight workers in, as it always did, to keep robbers out and, as some managers say, to prevent employee theft. As usual, there was no manager with a key to let Rodriguez out. The fire exit, he said, was hardly an option - management had drummed into the overnight workers that if they ever used that exit for anything but a fire, they would lose their jobs.
"My ankle was crushed," Rodriguez said. "I was yelling and running around like a hurt dog that had been hit by a car. Another worker made some phone calls to reach a manager, and it took an hour for someone to get there and unlock the door."
The reason for Rodriguez's delayed trip to the hospital was a little-known Wal-Mart policy: the lock-in. For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers' wives have gone into labor.
"You could be bleeding to death, and they'll have you locked in," Rodriguez said. "Being locked in in an emergency like that, that's not right."
Mona Williams, Wal-Mart's vice president for communications, said the company used lock-ins to protect stores and employees in high-crime areas. She said Wal-Mart locked in workers - the company calls them associates - at 10 percent of its stores, a percentage that has declined as Wal-Mart has opened more 24-hour stores.
Williams said Wal-Mart, with 1.2 million employees in its 3,500 stores nationwide, had recently altered its policy to ensure that every overnight shift at every store has a night manager with a key to let workers out in emergencies.
"Wal-Mart secures these stores just as any other business does that has employees working overnight," Williams said. "Doors are locked to protect associates and the store from intruders. Fire doors are always accessible for safety, and there will always be at least one manager in the store with a set of keys to unlock the doors."
Retailing experts and Wal-Mart's competitors said the company's lock-in policy was highly unusual. Officials at Kmart, Sears, Toys "R" Us, Home Depot and Costco said they did not lock in workers.
Retail industry experts also questioned the policy. "It's clearly cause for concern," said Burt Flickinger, who runs a retail consulting company. "Locking in workers, that's more of a 19th-century practice than a 20th-century one."
Several Wal-Mart employees said that as recently as a few months ago, they had been locked in on some nights without a manager who had a key. Robert Schuster said that until October, when he left his job at a Sam's Club in Colorado Springs, Colo., workers were locked in every night, and on Friday and Saturday nights there was no one there with a key. One night, he recalled, a worker had been throwing up violently, and no one had a store key to let him out.
"They told us it's a big fine for the company if we go out the fire door and there's no fire," Schuster said. "They gave us a big lecture that if we go out that door, you better make sure it's an emergency like the place going up on fire."
Augustine Herrera, who worked at the Colorado Springs store for nine years, disputed the company's assertion that it locked workers in stores in only high-crime areas. "The store is in a perfectly safe area," Herrera said.
Several employees said Wal-Mart began making sure that there was someone with a key seven nights a week at the Colorado Springs store and other stores starting Jan. 1, shortly after The New York Times began making inquiries about employees' being locked in.
The main reason that Wal-Mart and Sam's stores lock in workers, several former store managers said, was not to protect employees but to stop "shrinkage" - theft by employees and outsiders.
Tom Lewis, who managed four Sam's Clubs in Texas and Tennessee, said: "It's to prevent shrinkage. Wal-Mart is like any other company. They're concerned about the bottom line, and the bottom line is affected by shrinkage in the store."
Another reason for lock-ins, he said, was to increase efficiency - workers could not sneak outside to smoke a cigarette or make a quick trip home.
Rodriguez acknowledged that the obvious thing to have done after breaking his ankle was to leave by the fire door, but he and two dozen other Wal-Mart and Sam's Club workers said they had repeatedly been warned never to do that unless there was a fire. Leaving for any other reason, they said, could jeopardize the jobs of the offending employee and the night supervisor.
Regarding Rodriguez, Williams said, "He was clearly capable of walking out a fire door anytime during the night."
She added: "We tell associates that common sense has to prevail. Fire doors are for emergencies, and by all means use them if you have emergencies. We have no way of knowing what any individual manager said to an associate."