Risking Demerits or Spreading H1N1?


Prompted by reports from many other Walmart employees across the country, the National Labor Committee (NLC), a nonprofit organization that supports workers' rights, published a report Tuesday bashing Walmart's sick leave policy, which they said "gives workers demerits and deducts pay for staying home when they are sick or to care for a sick child."

The NLC claimed that demands on employees to work through illness positions Walmart stores to contribute to H1N1 influenza -- commonly called swine flu -- transmission in the coming flu season.

"They live in fear and dread," said Charles Kernaghan, director of the NLC. "Employees at Walmart have no choice but to get themselves to work, no matter how sick they are."

VIDEO: Is It Worth It to Take a Sick Day?

Walmart was quick to respond by saying that its policies encourage employees to stay home if they are ill.

"Let me start by assuring you that Walmart is encouraging our associates who may be ill to stay home and get well. That's in everyone's best interests," Gisel Ruiz, senior vice president of the People Division for Walmart U.S., told ABC News on Thursday. "Because of all the news around H1N1, we feel it is important to remind everyone that our sick policy provides them paid time off if they get the flu. Of course, no one will lose their job if they get H1N1 or if they have to stay home with a child who has the H1N1."

Ruiz also submitted a memo to its human resources associates that included the following details about the retail giant's time off policy. The memo reads:

Full-time associates can earn 2 personal days and approximately 6 days of sick pay a year. The sick pay can be used for a personal or family illness. After two years, they receive two weeks paid vacation. So...18 paid days off per year, plus holidays.

An associate who is ill can call in and, for that first day, can use earned paid time off to replace any lost income. Their sick pay takes effect on day two.

Generally speaking, associates can be absent 6 different times -- up to 3 days each time -- over a 6 month period.

Demerits for Sick Leave?

But according to the NLC report, which includes personal accounts from Walmart employees as well as documents outlining the company's attendance and sick pay policies, Walmart doles out points or demerits to employees who must miss work due to their own or a child's illness or because of an emergency not specified by the company.

The report also maintains that four absences in a six-month period lead to disciplinary action that can result in termination if more points are accrued. A clean record for six consecutive months erases all points from an employee's record.

Experts agree with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to employers, which advises people in the workforce to stay home if they have flu-like symptoms and employers to develop "flexible leave policies" so that workers can stay home and care for themselves and their families "without fear of losing their jobs."

"I do believe Walmart is creating a public health threat by encouraging workers to come to work [sick]," said Robert Field, professor of Health Management and Policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health. "It is in a position, as a retailer, to create particular exposures for the public... It's such a ubiquitous store and it particularly caters to families and kids are the ones most likely to spread the disease."

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