Walmart Stores Inc., the nation's largest employer, is defending its sick leave policy after a workers' advocacy group issued a scathing report saying the company made it difficult for employees to take sick time for themselves and their children.
The report, issued this week by the National Labor Committee, criticizes Walmart for giving demerits to workers when they're out sick and making them pay for their first sick day with a personal day or vacation day, or not get paid.
Walmart told "Good Morning America" that company officials encourage employees to stay home if they or their children are sick, and sent a memo to "GMA" that will be issued to human resource managers at stores across the country saying, "We must be clear that no one will lose their job if they get H1N1."
With flu season and fears of the H1N1 virus in full swing, workers across the nation have to decide what to do if they or their children get sick.
Whether to stay home, as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends, and risk being penalized at work is a dilemma at Walmart, authors of the labor report conclude.
"It turns out Walmart has a punitive point system where workers receive a demerit if they take a sick day," Charles Kernaghan, director of the National Labor Committee, told "GMA." "No matter what the reason. The workers have to drag themselves to work sick."
Two women who have worked a combined 20-plus years at Walmart shared their experiences with "Good Morning America," asking for anonymity out of fear of retribution by the company.
One worker, a 33-year-old mother of two, said her daughter woke up with a 103-degree fever, but she still went to work.
"I had to go to work today," she said. "I have three points. I had to choose my work over my daughter today."
According to the report, which includes personal accounts from Walmart employees, as well as documents outlining the company's attendance and sick-pay policies, the company doles out points or demerits to employees who miss work because of illness or an emergency not recognized by the company.
Four absences in a six-month period lead to disciplinary action that can result in termination if more points are accrued, according to the report. A clean record for six consecutive months erases all points from an employee's record.
"We encourage our associates to stay home if they're not feeling well, or if they need to take care of a sick child," Gisel Ruiz, senior vice president of the People Division for Walmart U.S., told "Good Morning America."
As for the first day a worker calls in sick, Ruiz said, it "really [is] back to the option of the employee of whether they want to use their personal time, personal paid day off or a vacation day.
"That's just the way that our policy is written," she said. "That's our policy."
Workers at Walmart have to use a sick day, or a personal day the first day they call in sick, or take no pay at all. Sick pay doesn't kick in until the second day.
The National Labor Committee said that demands put on employees to work through illness puts company stores in a position to contribute to the spread of the H1N1 virus -- commonly called swine flu.